Crafting a Trilogy: Origins

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In figuring out what I wanted to be when I grew up, the journey took many twists and sharp turns. In addition to merely considering many different fields, I worked more jobs than anyone I know at my age. At the tender age of 34, I’ve crossed more occupations off the list as “attempted, not quite right” than other people will attempt in a lifetime. (And more power to them. I sincerely believe it’s possible to graduate high school, know exactly who you are and what you’re good at, and find success in that career for a lifetime. In my experience though, it’s not possible to do that and also be me.) I’ve been great at a lot of things, I’ve done a lot of introspection and reflection, but I’ve never felt sure-footed on my career journey until recently.

Other people seemed to know my path long before I did. It’s a consensus I’ve heard since I was literally 5 years old, back when I thought I’d grow up to be an Egyptologist, or an architect, or a dancer. Many people pointed to me and screamed “You’re a Writer!” I was chosen to write and speak for groups, chosen to receive writing awards, pointed at by veritable strangers who heard me talk for a few minutes and declared, “You should write a book.” Many teachers requested acknowledgment when the then-imaginary book was published. On any number of subjects, people indicated, “If you wrote the book, I’d read it.” The constancy of their collective belief made it impossible for me, rebel with 1,000 causes, to agree and declare “I am a writer. I will write a book.” It seemed ludicrous that I should admit that everyone else, strangers even, knew me better than I knew myself.

So I finally did it. I wrote a children’s book, a picture book, about starting something new, setting a goal, and working to achieve it. I turned a poem I’d written about crafting into a story about a girl with a dream. I hired an illustrator to see my vision through. I self-published and advertised. Instantly, I had big dreams for the book and for the universe it insinuates. I created a brand, I set up at festivals and fairs, and I talked about my motives and what I know to be true with everyone I encountered.

The resounding, unanimous response was “This is the book? Is this all you have?” Disappointment and confusion were evident in their incredulity.

I do indeed have other kids’ narratives ready to go, stories that need editing, illustrating, and querying, stories that I still hope to air out and share with the world.

Amidst the constant inner turmoil of “Finding Myself” in my late 20’s, I conceded. I thought back on the words, wise and otherwise. I remembered the picture book series I’d invented when I was a kid, the many hours I spent running my fingers down spines in the library stacks, and how I’d often pass the time by improvising radio plays starring multiple people and a Foley artist, all played by me and my indeterminate accents.

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Unfortunately though, this first book left me, and my readers, unfulfilled. I demonstrated my way with rhythmic meter, rhyme scheme, and teaching empowerment – a lifelong pursuit – but it did little to encompass the creative waterfall crashing down in my brain. I was getting more out of talking about my values with adults than I was out of creating books and resources for kids. I began to wonder if I had a novel in me, a novel to be enjoyed by the adults saying “I would have loved this picture book when I was kid.” Rather than writing for the next generation in a wistful way to make up for lost time, perhaps I could write to their parents instead – give them the love letter to our existence that encompasses my thoughts and feelings about life itself.

A lofty goal, to be sure.

The Scientist and I, searching for ways to pass the quaran-time together, began to talk about writing a book – but the subjects varied. He’s more comfortable in the realm of (who’d have guessed it?) academic nonfiction, and we may have a joint project in us yet about neurodiversity and the natural world. Neither of us was very motivated to write it, though, and the idea was shelved.

Then, one day, we started with the What Ifs of fiction – what sorts of books do we love? What sorts of stories do we crave? What hasn’t been done? A speculative, fantasy world which existed within and expanded upon our own called to us- a story of one man, that evolved into an epic battle, that began to cross time and existential planes. We stuck post-its to a posterboard and drew circles, connected by arrows, which became webs. I doodled in the margins of our collective, creative brain and he drew more tethers across environments and ecologies. We tried to explain to mutual friends but it wasn’t something that could lend itself to a this-then-that narration. They needed more. They wanted more. We had based our idea in our mutually shared interests and dedicated the themes to our values and suddenly we knew we had a trilogy on our hands.

A year passed and the idea stagnated. It would come up when we were hiking or on a road trip, but the actual process was mysterious and elusive.

I’d sit down to write a scene from the trilogy and feel overwhelmed by the scope of it.

I’d start on page one – I must have written 12 different page ones.

I’d bounce ideas off the Scientist who would look at me dumbfounded for reaching the story further and further outside our original scope. Was it fantasy or science fiction? Was it comedic, horror, speculative or historical? Was it intended for young adults or more mature readers? Was it a novel, a graphic novel, or something else entirely?

I’d awaken in the middle of the night (or somesuch) and think – it’s not THIS kind of story, it’s actually a parody of THIS kind of story, and I’d scrap every short piece and description, and start it all over again. Maybe it wasn’t a trilogy – it was a series of short stories. Maybe it was scifi, not fantasy. Maybe it was 2 separate ideas that don’t actually work together.

And so, as I’ve done with every bit of spiraling doubt that surrounds every project or interest I undertake, I researched process. How-to’s and what-for’s. For nearly another year, I took notes on saving the cat and creating a screenplay, looking for tropes in every movie and series, learning about arc, plot, and character development, and revisiting some of my favorite fictional works for clues as to how they were put together.

One answer kept coming up: There is no right way. There are no right answers.

There’s no one way to get a story of this magnitude down on paper. It won’t be written from start to finish. It can’t be outlined like an academic work or written in a single draft. Much of what is written first won’t be included in the final edit at all.

It isn’t like building a house – get the pieces, put them together in a reasonable order, stand back and admire the work. I could watch and read all the house building tutorials I wanted, but no one had ever built THIS HOUSE before.

Writing a story like this one is more like growing a garden of wildflowers. Start with the idea – I want to grow flowers – sculpt out the general flower bed-fertilize and aerate the soil, plant seeds and nourish them – then see what grows from there. What thrives and what outcompetes the others. What attracts the right insects and meshes well with the natural ecology. What would do better transplanted into another garden patch.

To paraphrase the great Neil Gaiman who was paraphrasing someone else he considers great, You never learn how to write a book, you only learn how to write THIS book. And to paraphrase Neil Gaiman again, you write the story to find out how you feel about the story.

And with that final burst of confident steam, I know, I’m writing this fantasy trilogy. It may take years. It may look and feel entirely different from where it is currently. But the more I write, the more I confer with the Scientist, and the more I speak about it, the more confidently I feel that I have something here. I am writing a story that needs to be told, a story that feels important, a story that keeps me going back every day, to take notes, to read research, to create settings and scenescapes and tonalities.

I’ll keep track of my journey here under the subheading: Writer, Meet the Internet.

Hey look Mom (and all the others out there who said so) – I’m a writer!

Everything Fashion:

Our Autistic Expression

In this installment, I recap all I’ve discovered about myself and the Scientist in all our preferred, fashionable glory.

Your Fashion is Not Our Fashion

We are nonjudgmental and do not hold anyone to the standards to which we hold ourselves. It’s critical you understand this if you read on.

Photo by Tamara Bellis on Unsplash

A Time and a Place

The destination, setting, and intended mood dramatically affects the choice of attire. The Scientist and I have both been accused of being somewhat cartoonish in our outfit choices, but only because we have a deep-seated desire to match the environment — a desire that ironically makes us stand out. I wish to fit in, he wishes to blend in (I think these are different.)

Where most people have something of a capsule wardrobe or a set style that they wear for most things, or a seasonal approach, or an affection for neturals, our wardrobe is entirely contingent on the expectation, the setting, the mood, the location, the crowd, etc. Each of these factors holds weight.

I’ve never owned, and never will own, an LBD.

Before the Event

Before a job interview, party, hang-out, family visit, date night, etc., I don’t worry over the directions, the people, the food, or anything else. I consider what the outfit should communicate.

It’s a function of my anxiety, insecurity, preparation, and self-control — my autistic expression. I can’t control most variables, but I can doll myself up to look the part.

If I’ve never been to a place before and can’t see pictures ahead of time, or if I’ll be with people I don’t know, I fret about wardrobe.

Standing Out by Trying to Fit In

It may be hard to imagine this from outside the spectrum. Imagine if everywhere was actually a movie set — a location designed intentionally a certain way for a certain reason. There’s lighting, style, texture, energy, etc.

Then, the actors are dressed specifically to match the tone. Muted colors or bright, matching or contrasting, symbolic in one way or another — patterns appropriate to the architecture, time period or set by the lighting — cuts and styles seeming to originate from the era, blending seamlessly to create an illusion for the audience… All things the clothing designer considers when dressing the actors for full effect.

I’m not acting. This is me, for real. I’m becoming the most appropriate part of the scenery as I expect it to be. The Scientist too, to a lesser extent. His wardrobe has been cultivated to be timeless, unique and memorable — much like his personality. He’s not concerned with fitting in to the background so much as being himself, inspiring his own mood for the day, and matching the tone I’m setting.

I attribute my fashion obsession to many factors. I was singled out for my clothing in elementary school. I wasn’t allowed to wear dresses because of how I boyishly sat and played. I wore hand-me-downs from my brother’s closet and was forced into oversized, stiff tees. My body developed early, well ahead of my peers. I was obsessed with fitting in with others, with everyone, through my first 25 years. I felt insecure and detached and craved fitting in. I’m bored over the blandness and unoriginality with what the stores are offering. I need to inspire my own mood to want to socialize. Everything I do stems from an intentional choice.

To feel remotely comfortable, I need to look like I belong, by my own standard. I am a chameleon with thousands of skins.

Photo by Ekaterina Grosheva on Unsplash

On Being Different, Extra

I never want to be the center of attention. I take very few pictures and no videos of myself because I’m ironically not very attached to the way I look. I check the mirror once or twice a day, and not always before I leave the house in the morning. I always wanted to be more than just a pretty face and took a lot of umbrage whenever anyone said “it’s a good thing you’re pretty.” Beauty is irrelevant. It’s luck of the genetic draw. I’d love to blend in, to appear less striking, to be taken seriously as a mind not a face.

But since I intentionally choose my outfits based on an endless wardrobe, I end up standing out. Grudgingly.

It’s gotten me into embarrassing situations in the past. Moments or evenings I’ll regret forever because I overplayed my outfit. I’ve lost friends over it. I’ve ruined days being too…me.

Fabrics, Brands, Patterns, and Prints

I won’t wear leather or fur, because it seems silly and cruel to me in a world where the fakes have become as good if not better than the reals.

I don’t wear realistic animal prints for much the same reason, but I never pass up a green zebra print or a colorful feather pattern if it’s right.

Keep your name brands. I don’t want to pay exorbitant prices to be a walking billboard for a corporation. The brands that most people pay the most money for seem less valuable to me, lower quality, poorer construction. For that matter, I’m happily thrifty and incorporate vintage pieces often.

I don’t have too many fabrics I won’t wear, but I know the textures I don’t find comfortable. By feel, not by name. I have a few items in my closet that I love the look of, but can’t wear because of fit or feel — and eventually I’ll weed them out when I’m tired of trying to love them and the disappointment has faded.

The Scientist has an encyclopedic knowledge of fabrics, patterning, and construction. He can touch a fabric or see it on a hanger and identify the percentage of the blend. He also dabbles in sewing and clothing design. He wears a lot of birds, flowers, and natural textures. His retirement dream is to design a clothing line.

Colors

The Scientist and I are both able to see more colors than the average person. Although tetrachromacy is typically considered a female trait, we both identified many more color variants than the average when tested. It likely makes us even more attentive and discerning.

I know what goes together. For me. It would be impossible for me to verbalize these rules. They vary by decade or inspiration, cut and mood, all sorts of variables.

I nearly never wear red, blush, or beige. I firmly believe navy and purple can go with anything if you’re using them correctly. There are 100+ versions of each color. Anything can be a neutral. I love using contrasting colors from the wheel, watching for pastel/bright/primary/jewel combinations, and switching up options seasonally. I tend to be a year or two ahead of where the trends are, but I attribute this more to my growing boredom, not because of some insider fashion knowledge.

The Scientist is adept at monochromatics, moreso than I. I’ve never met anyone who can wear shades of red that work together. He also finds ways to match neighboring colors on the color wheel- something I never attempt but something I find so compelling. Usually he prefers blue or lavender.

Photo by Darling Arias on Unsplash

Head to Toe Fit and Style

I know it when I’m comfortable, which varies greatly based on my anxiety. Despite a fairly static body type, my anxiety will dictate how comfortable I feel in tighter fitting clothing or revealing more skin day to day. Sometimes I really need to show off this or that to feel feminine. Sometimes I need to cover up entirely in billowing fabrics.

My choice is predictive, though. The Scientist can predict an upcoming meltdown if I’ve chosen one of a few “I give up” pieces of clothing in combination. Usually, this is an ill-fitting black shirt with brightly colored rainbow leggings and something that just doesn’t match the rest.

(He’s helped me see my patterns in so many wonderful ways. I highly recommend finding an empathetic neurodivergent partner, if you have an empathetic neurodivergent mind.)

I prefer sneakers — Vans or Cons — which the Scientist has explained is because of my metatarsal arch, which requires a flatter, more protected surface. I toe-walk (common with neurodivergence), and my weight leans toward the outstep of my foot, not the ball. I’m working on fixing my gait and soon I’ll wear corrective braces. It’s not all bad though — I have highly developed musculature in my toes (finger-toes, I call them), and I have pointy, dainty dancer feet for them being size 10 hairless mammoths.

The Scientist is more predictable in fit and style. He likes a tighter fitting pant, a looser fitting button-down, and a seasonally appropriate sleeve. A suit whenever it is appropriate. No pants in the summer, shorts. Always socks. Palladium boots. Tommy Bahama casuals.

Mood

How do I want to feel today? What am I trying to convey? How can I inspire myself to create or focus or embody the nuanced part of myself I deem important right now? Is there a fashion era that will assist me in getting there? A color palette? An attitude? For as much as I want my style to match the environment, I’m also thinking how my style can alter my mood for the moment.

Feeling sluggish? Definitely wear the career casuals associated with office work. Feeling relaxed and free? The artsy throws and pastels will do nicely. Let me layer up the knits for the fun of fall. Break out linen for the freedom of summer nights.

Photo by Atikh Bana on Unsplash

Memory

Recently, I realized how my outfits function as a touchstone for memory. I don’t know why — perhaps because of the care with which I select them, their uniqueness or weighted importance, or just seeing them in my periphery each day.

Always, automatically, what I wore is a shortcut to the coded file. “Remember that day?” you might ask. Do I? I remember, I was wearing — oh the weather — the scenery — the people — the conversations — and then yes, I do remember that day.

I didn’t realize it was so important to me until the Scientist and I became nostalgic about our own experiences together. “Remember when…” he’d ask. “What was I wearing?” was always my reply. Knowing I have a tendency to encode memories differently, he never took offense when I didn’t remember right away. He can usually recount at least some of the outfit on the day in question and the memory floods back.

The regularity with which I asked him about my clothing drew my attention to my memory’s predilection. And because he and I spend a lot of time together, and because he dresses deliberately as well, his outfits have helped me encode experiences I otherwise would have forgotten. He’s my favorite sight in every scene.

I have trouble remembering the stuff people usually remember , in favor of things people typically don’t notice. I don’t remember the plot of the movie, or who was at the birthday, or what year the party was — my memory might be the strange thought I had when I walked in the room, the fact that I’d seen that poster before, that I got stuck in traffic on the way, or the faded color of the carpeting. I’m me everywhere, and my brain never stops analyzing and formulating — it has no sense for what to prioritize in memory, and certainly no accurate sense of day or year.

But…I can remember…I am this outfit on this day at this time for this reason — so Easter 2019 — the sage green, knee-length, modest dress with delicate lavender flowers that I wore under the lilac denim jacket I’d bought for the occasion with my olive green high-top Vans— meeting the Scientist’s extended family, wearing spring colors and wanting to be me, a casual-yet-romantic-inspired me — and I’ll never forget that day. It’s the intentionality with which it was chosen, the specificity of the clothing, that jogs the day back.

An Unbelievable but Totally True Addendum

The Scientist and I met on a dating site a few years ago. Actually, I’d seen him many times in various contexts before, but didn’t put together that all of these cute guys I’d seen and been too shy to talk to over the years were the same guy. He was the guy that tutored at the library where I worked years earlier. He was the guitarist in that concert I’d been drooling over before that. He was the guy on Myspace that all the girls somehow struck up conversations with before that.

He was the 8-year-old sort-of-Goth kid in the Marilyn Manson shirt that I met at the picnic when I was the 12-year-old wearing the multi-colored striped baby tee and gray parachute pants with butterfly clips who played violin. We’d exchanged a few words. We’d gone our separate ways. We realized it decades later based on the clothing we each wore and what we remembered of the other.

It’s sort of like an autistic fairy tale, wouldn’t you say?

What do your clothes say about you?

I’d never expect my structure to fit around anyone else. And I know that many neurodivergent people consider color, texture, etc in choosing outfits. What else matters about your clothes? Are they communicating something? Are they standing you out or fading you in? Please tell me your autistic expression — I would love to know more.

Photo by Sarah Brown on Unsplash

About the Series

I am neurodivergent. Neurodivergent is more appropriate terminology than autistic, a term which derives from the Greek word autos meaning self, a term intended to imply isolation from social interaction. While the definition of autism has expanded over time, I feel it is more flawed and divisive than not (as labels typically are). While I do still refer to myself as autistic on occasion, I’m much more likely to label my notable traits as autistic, as in “this skill or tendency sets me apart”, and to describe myself generally as divergent.

My partner, also neurodivergent, feels similarly. We were both diagnosed later in life, in our mid-late 20s, after running the gauntlet of other health and human service concerns and crossing the eventual “must be autism if it isn’t these other things” finish line. I wouldn’t wish either of our journeys toward diagnosis for anyone, years rife with stress, mislabeling, depression, psychosis, serious medical ailments, and general social othering. The medical and psychiatric communities have already begun to recognize neurodivergence earlier, and with more sincere gender blindness, to provide individuals with the tools, resources, and assistance they require. To “make it” in our society as a person who falls many standard deviations outside the expected average on related scales relies on an individualized approach to education and healthcare. (A much larger conversation for another day.)

Sincerely,

Sunshine

Of Www.sunshineandthescientist.com

Creator of Kid Lit Motivates: a fledgling business on Long Island providing customized educational resources from a unique perspective of education

Author of Maddie Steiner, Fashion Designer

Picture Book Spotlight: A STORY ABOUT AFIYA

Some picture books are too good to pass up.

A STORY ABOUT AFIYA, written by James Berry and illustrated by Anna Cunha, is a magical trip into the world of a young girl. We follow Afiya, whose name means “physical, mental, and spiritual health” in Swahili, as she encounters the beauty and excitement of the natural world. She takes each experience home with her on her plain, white dress, which stands out brilliantly against her beautiful black skin. The next day, the dress is clean and plain white again, ready for the next journey – to the sea, the field, the zoo – everywhere children go to experience nature’s full effect.

The breathtaking illustrations only enhance the poem’s world, drawing you into Afiya’s world as she dances and smiles amid nature’s bounty.

About the Author

James Berry was born in Jamaica in 1924. When he was 17, the United States entered WWII and began recruiting farmhands in the Caribbean, to fill vacancies left by young men who had been drafted. Berry and a few of his friends were excited at the possibilities of work in America. They headed to the States as soon as possible, but it wasn’t what they thought. They were disheartened by the inequality and mistreatment of black people and only stayed in the US a short time. According to Berry, “There was a colour problem in the United States that we were not familiar with in the Caribbean. America was not a free place for black people.” He returned to the Caribbean for a short time in 1948, before moving to Great Britain to work as a telegrapher, while attending night school and writing.

Author and Poet, James Berry, Wikipedia

Berry wrote prolifically, releasing several books of poetry and many children’s stories. In 1981, he was the first West Indian poet to win Britain’s National Poetry Competition. He became known for his work examining the relationship between the black and white communities, particularly the relationship between British citizens and Caribbean immigrants. He was awarded an OBE, the highest honor a poet can attain in Britain, as well as many other awards and recognitions. Berry died in 2017 at age 92, and his work is still beloved by many around the world for its depth and beauty.

Kid Lit Motivates

It’s no wonder A STORY ABOUT AFIYA made the NY Times List of Children’s Picture Books in 2020. It’s suitable as a stand-alone read-aloud, at storytime circle or bedtime. It also opens the door to a lot of activities and conversations. If diversifying your picture book collection and gently opening a conversation about the history of racial injustice in America is important to you (I hope it is), Afiya is a girl we can relate to and Berry’s biography shows us a contrasting experience. The story lends itself to discussing Berry’s work as a poet and many of his poems are for children explicitly. It’s also a beautiful way to discuss Jamaica, even though there’s no way of knowing where Afiya lives because her world is the ubiquitous world of childhood joy.

As with all great picture books, once I finished reading it, I was flush with ideas of how to use the story as an anchor for so many topics and how to extend the story for group storytime activities. I’ve put together a resource pack, available for download on TpT, to go alongside these activities, with the caveat that buying the book is essential – supporting the illustrator, the publisher, and the estate of the author is incredibly important. Please, buy the book.

First and foremost, I can see using the story as a way of discussing James Berry, his life and work, Jamaica, his home country, and Swahili, the language from which the name Afiya comes. I confess that I am not an expert nor an important voice in the conversation about racial injustice and racial equality, specifically how to educate children about it, and I recommend everyone seek out qualified speakers, educators, and authors on this topic. Admitting that, I’ve included a short biography of James Berry, a fact sheet about Jamaica, and some beginner information and phrases in Swahili. Hopefully, this is a respectful start.

Make the plot tangible by having kids draw some of the things Afiya collected on her skirt and matching those things to the places she visited. Stoke the fires of their imagination by asking them to imagine what their clothes might catch if they were like Afiya’s, and have them discuss and draw on their choice of a tee-shirt or dress template. What if their clothing was magical but with different powers than Afiya’s? What powers could their clothing have? (I think my magical clothes would be self-washing, but I’m sure kids will be more imaginative than that!) What memory would they most want to walk around wearing? It’s such a great story for talking about memory and imagination and I’ve designed a simple, effective worksheet as a guide for each of these questions.

The story opens with a title page that explains Afiya (pronounced A-fee-ya) means health and wellness in Swahili. I see this as a great opportunity to talk about names, how important they are, where they come from, and even brainstorming new names or nicknames. This leads into self-esteem activities – drawing their names in large letters with their favorite things surrounding it, or collaging all the things that make them unique, and then sharing this information with the group if preferred.

Since Afiya’s name means health and wellness, use the story as an anchor for health and wellness topics. Lead a conversation on what it means to be healthy, both in body and mind, and how to make healthy choices for whole health. Talk about coping with strong emotions, and have kids think about times a friend (or teacher or parent) helped them with a feeling, and/or a time when a friend could not. Using the experiences I had while working as a therapist, I’ve simplified these conversations for you and provided basic activities to coincide.

As memory and thoughts are part of our health and wellness, talk about how to keep a memory. The conversation goes something like this:

Unlike Afiya’s dress, we don’t get to carry it home on our clothing, but there are ways to make a memory stick.

And what about memories we want to forget? We can’t wash our minds clean and return them to the start like Afiya’s dress when something bad happens, so we must talk to an adult about these kinds of thoughts and have them guide us into changing our thought processes or reframing the experience for us.

There are even things we forget but want to remember! We might want to forget losing a soccer game and remember to bring our lunchbox to school every day.

Simple ways of approaching these conversations as well as worksheets have been created for this purpose.

Finally, talking about memory and thoughts leads me into self-awareness and mindfulness. Learning to unstick distracting thoughts is an important skill that can be learned with practice. Use the scripts and 3 mindfulness exercises I’ve included in the packet to assist with this. A STORY ABOUT AFIYA never mentions mindfulness (or memory for that matter), but there are clearly tie-ins to be made.

We carry our experiences with us and we start fresh in the morning. Sometimes it’s important to stop and smell the flowers, or dance among the butterflies, or wade into the water to look for fish. Sometimes we see a tiger, and perhaps that’s scary and something we want to forget. These are all important ideas that have to do with our health and wellness. Every kid deserves the chance to play freely in nature. We are all Afiya in some way.

For Storytime

I’m a firm believer in having tangible, large-scale, hand-made manipulatives when I lead story time, as they always help to draw in even the most distracted or antsy kid. To that end, Afiya’s journey inspired me to make a poster-size painting of her in her white dress, with dress attachments drawn up like each of the things Afiya experiences. (I’m by no means as talented as Anna Cunha, but I hope that I’ve done her work justice.) Listen for the birds and attach the bird dress (over the static white dress.) Watch for the roses and attach the rose dress. Finally, using sticky dry erase contact paper, I made a dress that can be drawn upon and erased, to give each kid a turn to share their favorite memory with the group or even play a version of Pictionary with their special memory while other kids guess.

To view the companion resource, please visit our TpT store:

Guided, Educational Activities for A STORY ABOUT AFIYA by Kid Lit Motivates (teacherspayteachers.com)

Custom Educational Resource for A STORY ABOUT AFIYA by James Berry and Anna Cunha, img credit: Kid Lit Motivates

For more information or to commission a customized educational resource like the ones described above, please email us at kidlitmotivates@gmail.com.

Following the Rules

Our Autistic Expression

Rules are meant to be broken, but to break them intentionally as the quote suggests, I have to know what they are.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

My ignorance is no defense, but just know by the stunned look on my face, the reddening of my cheeks, and the sudden lack of eye contact- if I broke some unspoken, unlisted, inexcusable rule, it was unintentional. I can always sense when I’ve erred. I don’t always sense how.

Mostly, when unspoken rules are broken, no reasoned explanation is given. To me, that’s the hardest part. That’s my neurodivergent itch to understand, to apply reasoned thought to everything.

This is one frame with which I view life. There are rules that we must follow, on which we can agree.

For most of my life, I lived for knowing (not always following) the rules. Every choice has consequences, so breaking a rule is a matter of weighing those consequences. The expectations in various situations vary, and there are usually a whole host of things not mentioned in the rulebooks on which I’m also being judged.

I can’t know for sure if neurotypicals consider this when they hold people to the unwritten expectations in any given scenario. I used to think they must. Now I’m fairly convinced its a rare trait in humanity in general. Like extreme empathy. Or virtuosic musicianship.

Photo by Austin Mabe on Unsplash

There are rules everywhere. For everything. At all times.

Even friendships have rules (we call them boundaries) and they’re harder to distinguish. Friendships with the nondivergent are hard to cultivate for this reason. Sometimes they don’t even know what their own rules are, or they change, or they act a certain way because its raining, or some such. I can manage a few friendship like this at a time, but I require much post-hang-out processing to fully understand what I’ve experienced, out-processing interactions, the side eyes and nuances I saw in the moment but couldn’t process while also maintaining my focus on the conversation in the setting. When I said this, they said this, but then they slightly stretched their eye lids, and then immediately ordered another drink, before looking at me and smiling awkwardly. Was this my trespass? Or their internal measure? Are they even aware they did that? And so on.

At least with the neurodivergent, there’s a tendency toward self-awareness or self-pronouncement or clear-cut lines between okay and not okay. There’s an acceptance of variable needs.

There’s also the moral code. Our duty to one another to do our best and do what’s right. I have mine enumerated, but in sum it is “Do unto others” plus “Strive for wellness.”

As I’ve aged, I’ve had an easier time recognizing rules and boundaries. It’s a lifetime pursuit, an academic course of study, understanding what is and isn’t acceptable based on what has or has not transpired in between two people, within a given culture, for my lifespan and the lives of those whose counsel I trust. In many ways, the rules have changed a lot since I was a child, but that’s just a dynamic society acting and reacting, breathing changes.

When people act immorally, illogically, unreasonably, basically like people sometimes do, I’m flummoxed. What’s the motivation? Whyyyyy, I ask the ceiling of many rooms I’m in.

I thrive on rules and I always have. I set them easily for myself and pivot when I need to. It’s about health and wellness, feeling good at the end of the day, or as good as can be expected. It’s about minimizing discomfort, physical, mental, social, and otherwise.

Problem explicitly identified? New rule implemented. Change accepted. Situation improved. Wheel turns.

Photo by Chris Lawton on Unsplash

Change is easy, easier than maintaining the norm. I get itchy sitting still, itchier still remaining the same. I’m fortunate to be engaged to a neurodivergent man of a similar nature — the Scientist and I will be changing together forever.

Here are my main personal rules (personal as in for me, as in I only expect me to live this way and pass no judgment on anyone else for behaving otherwise):

I never drink more than 6 alcoholic drinks in 4 hours, almost never drink 2 days in a row, and never drink before 4pm unless it’s a holiday where that’s typical. Alcohol creates a depressing self-interested spiralized hole in my mind that need continuous, verbal processing to refill. I put this rule first because it has an intense effect.

As a rule, I prefer a structured workplace with an ever-changing and expansive workload, and I seek these environments and situations out. I’ve been tasked with writing operations and training manuals at many of my jobs, and I’ve had many jobs because before I knew myself as autistic, I externalized internal events. At this point, I’m working from home, for a growing company, doing all sorts of tasks in the comfort of nonfluorescent lighting.

To that end, I prefer yellowish light to bluish, warm colors to cool, quiet situations to loud ones, though I love loud concerts when I’m expecting them. I keep my blue light filters on, I track my hours on a daily basis so I know I’m using my time productively, and I thoughtfully manage working my job, starting my own creativity-centered company, writing a blog, taking long hikes, playing pool, spending quality time with my cats, landscaping, and a host of other things. After I hit a personal low, prior to understanding I was autistic, I started climbing, filling my days, and set a rule to never let myself waste time. I sleep comfortably 6–7 hours a night.

I’m learning how to rest.

I have rules about what I’ll eat and won’t, what I’ll drink and won’t, and when and from where. I don’t often feel hungry or thirsty so I use the clock to prompt me at the same times each day. My food rules are based primarily on my experiences with an undiagnosed stomach disorder I had for the first 20 years of my life, a disorder which immediately got better when I stopped eating pork, meat, chicken, most fried foods, foods with heavy fat and oil content, almonds, raw leafy greens, Splenda, juice on an empty stomach, and full-fat dairy. I don’t expect anyone to keep track of these rules. I manage them just fine and I learned to cook so as not to rely on anyone else to do it for me.

If I’m a guest at dinner, I’m vegetarian. As long as there is a single non-meat dish, I’ll work around everything else based on my internal signaling. I’ll bring my own meal if they cook exclusively with lard. I never settle for an upset stomach, but I never offend a host who is sharing their table with me.

For that matter, if prompted, I will describe in polite or graphic detail the agony of bacon, the indigestion of orange juice, the nights I spent literally on the floor screaming… best not to ask at the dinner table, because I will indulge them for their edification. No, bacon does not go with everything. No, I don’t miss the feeling that a small gnome with a giant pick-axe is trying to cut his way out of my intestines. (The imagery helped me cope when I was a kid. Now it makes people chuckle.)

Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

I prefer when friends can speak the truth, about me, about themselves or otherwise. The truth does set me free. I can accept self-denial from friends, but insist on an open-book, self-aware model from me outward. So what if I’m blunt, awkward, and keep myself to impossible standards? I’m also kind, generous, and supportive. I’ve crossed a lot of bridges, and I’ll help anyone cross theirs too.

Do I drive over the speed limit? Sure. The speed signs in my area were posted in the 1940s and 50s, when anti-lock breaks and power steering were nonexistent, when cars were giant metal boxes with no safety equipment, boats on wheels, so to speak. So I may drive 5-10 over the posted limit, but … what are those drive 30-40mph over the limit thinking? It’s dangerous for us all. Everyone. It’s not an oppressive rule, it’s a matter of civic duty and safety. Survival.

We all have rules in society and we all know them to some extent or another.

There are rules about when to water the lawn. If it’s 2pm on a hot day and the sprinklers are on, not only are they breaking a rule in my neighborhood, but they’re actually boiling their grass from the inside.

Rules about right-of-way on the road.

Rules about hygiene.

Rules about equity, and equanimity.

Rules about greetings and parties and phone calls and comments and the pandemic has made all of these rules entirely unique for everyone, which is just a field day for my mental filing system. If they tell me what they expect from me, I’ll file that away too. Make a mental preference note.

When I learn a new rule, I ask why, what for, unless the reason is obvious.

Do the nondivergent NEED to know WHY it’s a rule? I’d say most don’t acknowledge how many rules they follow, let alone why. People in the herd for one thing or another. Others exist in a world of their own making, with no structure, and nothing but this moment to guide the next. I’m guessing, of course. I have no idea how they think. I just know that its nothing like me.

I’m all for mindfulness, but also learning from experience, mine and others, always learning, and planning for a healthier, safer tomorrow. Growth mindset. Keep growing.

Photo by Rupert Britton on Unsplash

About the Series

I am neurodivergent. Neurodivergent is more appropriate terminology than autistic, a term which derives from the Greek word autos meaning self, a term intended to imply isolation from social interaction. While the definition of autism has expanded over time, I feel it is more flawed and divisive than not (as labels typically are). While I do still refer to myself as autistic on occasion, I’m much more likely to label my notable traits as autistic, as in “this skill or tendency sets me apart”, and to describe myself generally as divergent.

My partner, also neurodivergent, feels similarly. We were both diagnosed later in life, in our mid-late 20s, after running the gauntlet of other health and human service concerns and crossing the eventual “must be autism if it isn’t these other things” finish line. I wouldn’t wish either of our journeys toward diagnosis for anyone, years rife with stress, mislabeling, depression, psychosis, serious medical ailments, and general social othering. The medical and psychiatric communities have already begun to recognize neurodivergence earlier, and with more sincere gender blindness, to provide individuals with the tools, resources, and assistance they require. To “make it” in our society as a person who fall many standard deviations outside the expected average on related scales relies on an individualized approach to education and healthcare. (A much larger conversation for another day.)

Sincerely,

Sunshine

Of Www.sunshineandthescientist.com

Creator of Kid Lit Motivates: a fledgling business on Long Island providing customized educational resources from a unique perspective of education

Author of Maddie Steiner, Fashion Designer

For Them to Listen, You Need to Be Listening

A Plea for Child Carers, Rearers, and Engagers

Photo by Gustavo Fring on Pexels.com

Scenario 1

I’m on the self-check-out line at the grocery store, waiting for a free machine. It’s busier than usual and a few of us wait our turn. A woman looks up from scanning a cartful of items and sees the line of customers backing up — she seems stressed, a bit frazzled, perhaps even a bit guilty for having so many items on a self-serve line. I maintain a placid look and browse the cookie display to my left.

I’m empathetic and I have no desire to rush her. She’s checking herself out, requiring her to scan and bag everything alone, all while keeping tabs on an imaginative 4-yr-old who is holding the cart with one hand and playing with a toy dinosaur with the other. He’s keeping himself occupied while she has a lot going on. No one else on the line behind me seems concerned either — there are two other machines that could free up at any moment. The other customers seems patient and unconcerned.

The dinosaur gallops across the register, across the scanner, and falls onto the weighted bagging surface. A robotic voice sounds: Please remove the unscanned item. And then the woman, with an actual finger pointed several inches from the kid’s face, grunts, “You’re not being a good listener!” He recoils in fear, eyes wide, silent, then snatches the dinosaur back and slides himself to the other side of the cart without ever losing contact.

I’m taken aback. In this scenario, what is a Good Listener? I’m an adult, and I have no idea what she’s talking about. Should he? 

Scenario 2

I’m at the shoe store, hoping to return a pair of $80 sandals I’d bought thinking they’d only cost $25. Ahead of me, next on line for the register, is a grandmother and a young boy, maybe five or six. The boy is asking questions about the sock display — Why do they have cats and no dogs? Nana, where are the kid socks? What are these for (pointing at the barely-there nylon toe covers)? 

All good questions. I’m wondering how I’d answer them as if he’d asked me. Maybe cats are more popular sellers, or dog socks have all sold out. Kid socks are probably over by kid shoes, or near the socks section — the register is just a sampling of the sock stock. And I have no idea what those stretchy nylon toe traps are for — they’ve never done anything for me except been annoying the for 10 minutes they were on my feet before I threw them across the room.

Nana is not answering any of his questions. She’s patently ignoring him, despite him being polite, deferential, and attentive. When she gets called to the register, she steps up, turns, and barks, “Get over here” and then not two seconds later, lunging and grabbing his wrist, “You’re not listening, come here, don’t move.” 

When was he supposed to move those three feet from the line to the register? How was he supposed to know he should be listening for her commands while she was ignoring his questions? How quickly was he supposed to “get” before being branded “not listening”?

Mind-boggled, I continue to watch as his affect falls from chipper and curious to dejected and sad. His arms have fallen lifelessly to his sides. His chin is on his chest. Still, a woman with a stack of shoe boxes brushes by him and he attentively steps backward to move out of the way. Nana, not seeing the woman, looks down, “That’s it, I said don’t move. You’re not listening, so no ice cream now.” His face wells up and he hurries to wipe away the tears, holding his breath and turning red. “Oh grow up,” says Nana, as she grabs his wrist to guide him out of the store. 

I fear for his potentially stunted emotional development and the tattered shards of a relationship he has with Nana. I hope there are other adults in his life who will answer questions, acknowledge his attentiveness, and support him.

Real Stories, Not Exaggerations

In my experience, those of us who are professionally trained and experienced working with kids are one of two ways: 

  1. Overly empathetic, attuned to all kids around us at all times, struggling not to butt in to parent-child interactions unless the most dire circumstances call for it, quick to make goofy eye contact or wave at toddlers, and quick to compliment a kid’s hat or shoes to put a smile on their face. It takes every ounce of strength for us in these scenarios to keep our mouths shut and mind our own business, only interjecting if something is clearly putting a child in harm’s way.
  2. Exhausted, overworked, and short-tempered, incapable of dealing with one more kid for one more minute especially when we’re off-the-clock, running scripts on autopilot and expecting more of our own kids than they could possibly perform. From a glance, the women from these scenarios seem to exist here. 

The grocery store and shoe store stories are true — happening just as I’ve described them. 

Both of those women were also educators — one wearing a shirt from a local school indicating such, the other brandishing a school ID for a discounted rate. This means they’ve been trained, presumably, to be on the lookout for these types of missteps. I find this the most appalling part of their stories — that they’ve entirely lost perspective, with their own children, and possibly with all children. 

They’re Doing Their Best

The women I’ve described may be the most patient, loving, attentive women most of the time — maybe just having off days. Maybe they were stressed, overworked, underpaid, receiving awful news, and having difficulty coping with the world we all inhabit. Maybe, after a long, dark, tense day full of harsh realities, they were really doing their best. Maybe they went home, apologized, and openly explained to their children that being an adult is challenging and that emotions, while a personal responsibility to control, are sometimes difficult to understand, even for adults who love their kids very much.

Maybe I’m being too generous. But maybe they really were doing their best.

To them, and others like them, I plead, the most important thing to remember, the kids were doing their best too. Neither kid was being malevolent, harmful, or intentionally troublesome. (Most kids aren’t.) They both seemed timid, not testing, after explosive commands. They both were minding themselves, attending, listening when they were chastised. 

Even on the worst day, it is the adult’s responsibility to retain, or regain, control — of themselves — first. If a child is not responding in the ‘proper’ way, the adult needs to reconsider exactly how appropriate ‘proper’ is, and how intentional ‘proper’ has been communicated. 

If something an adult is doing makes a child cry, shrink in terror, or freeze up, it is the adult’s responsibility to change the narrative. If they don’t, they’re the ones not listening.

Photo by Kamaji Ogino on Pexels.com

Listen, We’re Not Listening

As a culture, we need to get back to basics.

First off, what outward physical sign are we expecting to see when we tell a kid to Listen? Listening is an active event, but it’s mostly unobservable. 

To know for certain if a kid is listening, we see them follow directions or change their facial expression. Can a kid be listening without reacting? Listening without responding? Listening without changing their expression or action? Listening while playing, moving, looking away? Yes, absolutely, yes.

“Listen!” They are. They’re listening more than we know. Unless we tell them exactly what we want them to do, they can’t possibly show us they’re listening. They hear is all of the things that go unsaid. And they’re learning how to interact with people when they grow up, how to cope, how to communicate, and how to be an adult — from all the things we say and don’t say, and all the ways we say and don’t say them.

LISTEN! We’re building little humans here, one interaction at a time. 

Reaction Time and Space

In both scenarios, there was less than 2-seconds allotted for the child’s reaction, even when a direct command was given. “Behave, you’re not behaving, you’re punished for not behaving,” is a common trope among short-tempered caretakers. 

Under the age of 10–12, children are still learning to process language. This means, even if we speak slowly, kindly, and directly, it may take a literal minute for them to be able to fully understand that we’re asking them to react and what that reaction should be. 

If we’re speaking quickly, angrily, with complexity or with nuance, it takes even more time to process and react. Contrary to the beliefs of some, aggressively yelled commands are LESS LIKELY to be followed.

What does ‘behave’ mean to a child? What does ‘listen’ mean? What do we mean, ‘stand quietly next to me, don’t touch anything and when we get back to the car you can play with your toy?’ That’s a lot to process. What are they supposed to do immediately? What are we actually asking and why? Even if the child can follow, is there even a reason to command?

The first child NEVER took his hand off the shopping cart. That child was clearly following instructions that had been given earlier in the day or trained on previous shopping trips. He listened. If he had been instructed to keep his hands at his sides, touch nothing, be still, be invisible, he’d likely try his best at that too. He’s listening, but nothing is actually being asked.

The second child NEVER had a chance to act. He wasn’t listening for the cashier to call them forward, but why should he be? He wasn’t misbehaving by adult standards. He was standing still and not moving as directed. The assumption that he should grow up, or that he’s done something wrong — it’s damaging. He’s listening, and he had no way to succeed in this scenario. 

The more aggressively we respond to children, the more reserved they become in their reactions. It isn’t their responsibility to change the cycle.

Emotions Speak Louder than Words

While empathy is cognitively developing, for most kids, absorbing emotional affect is automatic. (For neurodiverse kids, this skill may develop later if at all.) 

So for most kids, no matter what WORDS they’re hearing, the accompanying EMOTION is translating more quickly. This is why reacting to a baby’s fall can bring tears or laughter — they respond to our affect in real time, before their own pain or pressure signals. Our reaction shows them how to interpret their internal signaling.

Until kids develop a clear sense of self in their preteen to teen years, they pick up and emote whatever the strongest influence in their current sphere is emoting — stress or elation, negativity or positivity. The assumption is often that once a kid can talk about how he feels, he’s capable of operating and interpreting his feelings independently all the time. Kids with verbal skills haven’t lost the tendency that babies have, to pair internal signals with an adults’ affect, but adults forget how powerful their affect can be.

If we are angry, upset, stressed, or otherwise not in a good way, kids are predisposed to mirroring that emotion. If we ignore them, kids are more likely to ignore us. If we approach with kindness and attentiveness, however, kids quickly turn it around. They’re natural mirrors. They can be expected to be as engaged or disengaged as the people who have the strongest influence over them. 

Photo by Ksenia Chernaya on Pexels.com

What are we actually asking?

Stand here. Don’t touch anything. Walk this line. Don’t speak. Answer questions when I ask them. Move when I move. Keep your eyes forward. Stop asking questions. Stop your childlike sense of wonder and curiosity. Stop your imagination. Don’t play. Be a human doll until I ask you to respond, and then do as you’re trained, like a pet. 

This is what I hear when I hear adults say “You’re not listening.” 

Because “not listening” seems to entail a boatload of directions that kids are meant to intuit, deduce from the environment, or otherwise KNOW. 

For a kid to respond the way we’re hoping, we need to be clear, concise, calm, and compassionate. They haven’t learned the rules yet, but they are mostly hoping we’ll teach them. They WANT to do well. They just can’t intuit what you mean when you tell them they’re failing.

Realistic Expectations

We also need to get back to basics on what we expect from children at various ages and stages.

Can this kid ever stand totally still? Is that developmentally appropriate for a kid his age? 

Do we really want this kid to stop asking us questions? For how long? 

Is this kid, for the most part, being self-guided and following the expected rules? 

What do we really need this kid to do, right now? If they continue to play with their toy without causing too much of a stir, is that enough? 

Are we accounting for how loud, how bright, how distracting, how bustling, how much is going on at this store? Do we remember how fun or how stressful it was to be in a new place when we spent most of your time inside the same 3 places? Is it fair to request more of a kid who is striving to understand, interpret, interact, behave, and take it all in?

We need to choose our battles and maintain realistic expectations based on past behavior, developmental ability, and the environment we’re in. 

Path to Success

The best that we can do for kids is to set them up to succeed more often than we chastise them for failing. A confident, happy kid is more attentive and capable than a sad, self-conscious one. If setting them up for success is not viable, distracting them is better than getting upset. Here are some examples of things that could have been said in the given scenarios:

“Please play with your toy on the shopping cart. The scanner needs to be left alone.”

“I need your help counting all of the items that I put into this bag.

“You’ve kept your hands on the cart the whole time — that’s great! Can you keep your dinosaur on the cart too?” 

“I’m having a stressful day. Please keep listening for my directions. Thank you for helping me shop.”

“Please stay by my side and hold onto my shirt. You’ve been pretty close to me, but it would be better if you would stay closer.” 

“I love when you ask me questions, but I have a headache and can’t answer your questions now. If you remember, ask me later on.”

“When we’re in a store like this one, we need to pay really close attention to each other. Please follow my directions and stay close enough to touch me. I know I can depend on you to follow my directions. You are a great listener.”

“Can you count how many pieces of candy you can see? How many shoes? How many bottles of water? 

“Can you say the ABCs for me while I finish this transaction?” 

“When we leave the store, I’m going to ask you to name three of your favorite movies. Think about them now, and when I ask later, you can tell me about them.” 

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

Every Interaction Guides Them

Kids learn and adapt quickly. The exceedingly neuroplastic nature of their brains makes rapid development possible, and also makes them sponges for change. 

If we find ourselves setting a poor tone, we are only an interaction or two away from fixing it, especially with very young ones. They look to us for guidance. We show them how to be. Should they communicate their needs or bark commands? Should they ask for help or demand it? Should they expect the impossible of those around them? They’ll only know how to do as we do.

If we’re able to objectively view ourselves and alter our own behavior, we help them develop in the ways we intend. We create a brighter world full of more empathetic, communicative, attentive individuals with self-awareness and emotional range. Isn’t that what we’re all striving for? 

What about Maddie?

The author explains it all.

MADDIE STEINER, FASHION DESIGNER is the first picture book for Kid Lit Motivates, but hopefully not the last. After a weekend of networking with young readers and parents, I realized there were things I wanted to explain that won’t be obvious in the first read and also some background about the work itself.

Since publishing the book, my best friend/partner/love has joined me in the KLM mission -(Sunshine and the Scientist) – and while I tend to refer to the book as mine, it is now ours, and we consider “I” and “we” interchangeable here.

Cover image of Maddie

The Plot

Maddie is a can-do girl on a mission to make a new outfit for an Art-Show-Style-Party (whatever that is), and she’s never done that before. She RSVP’s to the party, but makes a few mistakes in the response. Then she dreams up a gown she’d love to wear, researches how to design, then gets to work shopping, sketching, sewing, and adding embellishments. The story ends with her arrival at her friend’s house, wearing her crafty, new dress and excited to get partying.

“It’s the book I would have loved when I was a kid!” 

I hear this often. Thank you, same here. I wanted books I could read over and over again, with complicated illustrations, pictures in pictures, jokes within jokes. 

Spoiler alert: It is not ABOUT fashion design.

First, to dispel the notion: this book will not teach your child how to sew. There are no patterns included in the back of the book and no direct instructions for budding fashion designers.. (We are currently creating these as an extension workbook, due to the popular demand and the curiosity the notion seems to instill. It likely won’t be available before the end of the year, and was not part of the original idea.) MADDIE STEINER, FASHION DESIGNER was never intended to be a sewing manual for kids – but this is the primary criticism I receive., so it’s worth noting.

Maddie checking the mail.

Inspired by Real Life

The book was inspired by a particular client I worked with when I was doing in-home work with autistic children. At 10-years-old, L had been diagnosed with a learning disability and was struggling academically and socially. She had difficulty initiating choices, and at the gates of puberty, was starting to recede into her cell phone, her dark bedroom, and stormy, unpredictable moods. She loved fashion – wanting to look put together all the time – and it became clear early that she was a perfectionist, and one that struggled to accept average, but imperfect grades. Test stress suffocated her. As I got to know L., I realized she was becoming obsessive about boys and friends, and she had difficulty maintaining a conversation that wasn’t centered around her. L might have a learning disability, but it seemed clear to me that she was autistic.

(‘Female’ presentation of autism is generally much different than the more male-type presentations, which is not to say that boys won’t have the more ‘female’ traits or vice versa. There are generalizations, but every child should be treated with the respect of individuality. I can talk about autism and our culture for hours, so I won’t dive further in to that here.)

Necessity, as always, is the Mother of Invention

In any case, it was clear that my responsibility to L was not primarily academic support, as initially suspected. I had the opportunity to impart the social and emotional knowledge she was understandably lacking, the things that they don’t usually teach in school. Self-awareness and self-acceptance were primary goals. We found a lot of success after about 6 months in emotion identification, coping, and social awareness. We even made progress away from isolation and obsession. The hardest thing to work through was the desire to be perfect.

Perhaps it was so hard to approach perfectionism, in part, because it was something I struggled with until recently myself.

I spent hours in various children’s libraries around my county, searching for a picture book that might help me show, rather than tell, this particular lesson. Yes, L., was 12, and capable of reading middle grade chapter books – but the picture book format was a lot more accessible in an hour-long session, and the images could be more impactful than the words for a more youtube-centric generation. I believed, even before Kid Lit Motivates was born, that a picture book could open the door to any conversation. Despite endless searching, I was disappointed at the selection.

Maddie focused on JENGA.

We should encourage ALL girls, all kids, to think, whether or not they love STEM.

L.’s interests were narrow – and within those interests I could find nothing available that addressed her needs or represented her struggle. The thinking/planning books were all math- and science-based. There were books geared to much younger kids about making friends, but no picture books with the awkward struggle of the pre-teen. There were books where children finished projects, even books about overcoming perfectionism, but none that showed HOW to do it, only how to FEEL as you do it. And the only books available regarding fashion were vapid and useless – can’t a girl love clothes and still learn to think?

I shudder when I remember one Barbie book that was recommended to me by a librarian- Ken comes over to fetch Barbie for a date, and Barbie keeps him waiting on the porch while she quite literally gets lost in the wide expansive wonderland of her own closet. She returns much, much later, after an entire fashion show of dress and shoe options, to find him asleep on the porch. Not to worry, Ken says something degrading about how that’s the best he can expect from her, and off they go on a giggling, happy date. Book over. Jaw on the floor. To me, disgraceful. Is this really the best we can do for girls and boys?

I write rhythmic, rhyming bits to cope.

MADDIE, quite literally, began as a poem I wrote to cope with the absolute despair I felt in the search. Rooms full of craft supplies and I could not find the way to explain, model, or demonstrate to L how to get a project started without worrying about the way it came out. We tried a lot of craft projects together, any hobby she expressed the slightest interest in, but she couldn’t take pride in any of them or do anything twice, because she couldn’t accept the reality of a learning curve. Perfection or bust.

The poem stayed with me, reworking itself in my mind, line by line, at odd moments in time. It did nothing to help L. and eventually our time together ended. It was a year or so after our sessions terminated that I hired an illustrator to make my vision a reality. I had a poem that had a tight rhyming lilt, that felt like a folk song but for a modern audience. In my mind, I saw it unfolding like a mix between Looney Tunes-style animation, referential meta humor, and details that felt like real life.

Self-Publishing Amateur Style

I confess I was very directive with the illustrator, who was phenomenally skilled, patient and kind. He added the stuffed bear in homage to a beloved teacher (the bear appears on nearly every page). and he understood the pop culture nods and winks I hoped to add. He is solely responsible for every one of Maddie’s fun tees, for the Indiana Jones and Bob Ross reference images (and others), and for the humor inside the humor.

On the first edition of the cover, he didn’t put his name on the work, and I felt quite badly about it. I still do. It hadn’t occurred to me that I should tell him to add his name, demand it, implore him to take credit – I thought artists signed their work when they wanted to stand by it, and since I’d described each page in great detail, perhaps he just didn’t want to be associated with my project. When he reworked the cover for me (to add the giant picture of Maddie, as I realized was standard for picture books), I insisted he take credit. (If you ever read this, Aaron, thank you so much for everything. My desire to see my vision through was so intense that it wasn’t the collaboration it could have been. I was new to the industry, I’m very grateful for the character you added to her character, and I sincerely apologize.)

The interaction we had was only the first step of my lacking confidence in Maddie, there would be many other stumbles along the way.

Maddie pricks her finger.

Criticism is Understandable

MADDIE STEINER, FASHION DESIGNER is not like other picture books. This was – sort of – the intention.

The text is too advanced for the picture book industry. Despite being an acceptable number of words and pages, the content and vocabulary level far outpaces the typical picture book audience.

Since the book was meant to be aimed at a preteen audience, it’s an honest, if unfounded, criticism. It wasn’t meant to be read by or to early readers. It was meant as an anchor activity to begin any number of difficult or tricky conversations, while modeling what it is to have a dream, set a goal, learn a skill, and accept the outcome.

Where are the Teens?

Teens and preteens are practically nonexistent in picture books. Mostly, the books involve human or animal characters ranging in age from baby to age 10 or so, and full-grown adults. Occasionally a teen sibling character appears as an aside.

Teachers know that picture books are excellent ways of jumping in to topics – so why can’t we use them with a slightly older crowd?

Maddie isn’t clearly identified as a teenager, but there are indications she is one. She eats takeout from containers and goes shopping for supplies alone. She’s got a full-sized desk in her bedroom and a lab coat in her closet. (She likes science after all. Science AND clothing.) At one point in the story she works so much that she falls asleep in a mess of scraps, paint, and glue. It’s real. She’s a young teen.

Why don’t we have representations of teenagers in picture books? Moreso, why don’t we show characters who have “unskilled”, “stepping-stone” jobs, while going to school – you know, like the ones real teens have? Cashiers, servers, retail store workers, babysitters, facepainters, the list is endless.

Where are the picture book characters who show what being a teen is like, emotionally, socially, psychologically? We model adulthood for children without even blinking- careers, parenthood, etc. But the teenage years are like a silent, shameful era we’d rather kids not be exposed to. Despite the fact that they will one day be teenagers with changing bodies, growing hearts, and questioning minds, we only show them children, adults, and the occasional teenage savant.

If we ever hope to ease the teenage transition, and limit dangerous rebellion, isolation, and attitude, we should probably demonstrate to kids in positive ways what will be expected of them. And embrace teens for what they are, not deny they’re growing up until they’ve already grown.

It Isn’t Just One Book

Maddie was meant to be a relatable girl, a real girl, with hobbies, interests, skills and struggles, a range of emotion and experience. I hoped to use it as an anchor to talk about socializing, texting, learning a new hobby, setting a goal with a defined deadline, and working hard to the finish. The posters in Maddie’s room tell us to “Tri, Trryy, Try Again,” to take “Caution: Mind at Work”. She may say she’s okay but her face tells us otherwise. She may say it was easy, but we can see the challenge. Just like reality.

I hoped it was something that could be read again and again, where illustrative Easter eggs might catch the eye on the second or third read, where the rhythm of the text and the notebook illustration might inspire future repetitions.

It occurred to me much later that its a book that exists within an entire world of possibility – a world where reality is represented and celebrated for being perfectly imperfect, awkward and emotional, exhausting and energizing.

I have big dreams for this book, and several stories of a similar, yet different ilk, demanding illustration, waiting to come to life. I’ve been learning the art form myself, counting down my hours of illustration practice, slowly but surely, because I believe all things are possible, and because I wouldn’t want to force my ideas on another artist ever again.

Maddie shopping and shocked at the inventory.

So Who and What is it for?

It’s a book about a teenager, written for a preteen, hoping to be included in the canon of younger readers who are looking for the next, best thing. It exists at face value as a simple story about a girl and her quest to make a dress, and then as a model for actual, awkward, uncomfortable, amazing adolescence.

It’s a book that shows how to set a goal, and see it through, despite the odds and imperfections. It can also suit nicely as an anchor for many other conversations and subjects, many of which I have since created worksheets and activities for which are available for free and for sale on the Kid Lit Motivates TeachersPayTeachers Store site.

The Wrap-Up

It’s a book I’m intensely proud of, despite the odd reactions it evokes. I stand by it and I hope that my vision for it, for our future work, and for the Kid Lit Motivates mission, is clear.

To purchase MADDIE STEINER, FASHION DESIGNER and support Kid Lit Motivates – please click here.

To receive free downloadable resources to use with MADDIE or without, or to purchase workbook packs, please click here.

If you’re interested in connecting about this or anything Kid Lit Motivates has to offer, please contact us at kidlitmotivates@gmail.com, or head to our contact page and fill out the form.

Thank you for your interest in Kid Lit Motivates.

Sunshine and the Scientist: Our Philosophy of Learning

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From the Scientist

While Sunshine and I have been strategically planning the future of Kid Lit Motivates, we stopped to consider our primary goals. While we discussed content and presentation at length, we realized something important. Content is less relevant to us than we previously imagined. Our learning philosophy is a framework upon which any content can be laid. We can provide tangible manipulatives, customized resources, and entertaining metaphorical overlaps for any number of topics. To date, we’ve created customized resources in music, science, self-awareness, and social skills, to name a few.

Resources generally tend to be created for specific subject areas or content blocks, and assume a standardized development of skill. We develop our resource content based on the interests, potential interests, and needs of our clients. If we’re creating class sets for teachers, we work toward curriculum goals with social and academic areas in mind. When we consider large scale presentations, the design is aimed at subjects we believe will enliven, encourage, and engage. What interests parents and kids alike? What sparks the imagination? What do we all need to know, and how do we need to know it? We pair that content with manipulatives and anchoring resources, which we customize to be adaptable to the widest audience possible.

 Throughout all of these events, presentations, festivals, and sessions, one thing remains consistent across the ages and stages, content and framework: we are teaching, empowering, and modeling different ways of thinking. Content is malleable and process is paramount.

Our greatest passion is teaching young people methods and awareness of thought.  To think is to be.

There are many different modalities of thought. While the steps of writing a lab report can be memorized, it is more valuable to understand and employ scientific inquiry in a variety of situations. Where a small percentage of children will grow up to pursue the sciences in theoretical or practical form, the majority of children will benefit from awareness of the scientific method, a structured approach to thought. To be a scientist is to learn how to ask a question, look at available evidence, gather data to interpret reasonably, then determine what questions come next. This way of thinking is a skill once thought to be innate that is being lost or downplayed in our current climate.

Can thought be taught? It is a skill to employ thought deliberately. Scientific inquiry is a skill, in that there are specific tasks to be completed in a certain order, which can be learned, much like tying a shoe or cooking a soup. And as a skill, there are those who will learn more naturally, by observation or instinct, and those that need a more strategic, scaffolded approach. We, Sunshine and the Scientist, excel at modeling and scaffolding presentation and engagement.

Other modalities of thought are important as well. Sunshine places a lot of weight on philosophical inquiry, a way of thinking that allows one to ask questions, of hypothetical or actual nature, until a satisfying reasoning is formed. Philosophical inquiry enables communication, builds community, opens our minds to other perspectives, and develops one’s own beliefs. There are things people passionately believe that have been reasonably approached and there are things people believe passionately that have never been considered deliberately. Philosophers are thoughtful, deliberate, and open-minded. We aim to teach philosophical inquiry for this reason. 

Thinking empathetically, the needs of the one and the needs of the many are valuable and acknowledged. Empathetic, sensible thinkers are caring and kind, making for more civility and acceptance in the community at large. This way of thinking also enables the thinker to be more communicative and aware of their own needs. Learning how to prioritize the feelings of others is another way of thinking that can be acquired as a skill.

A state of synthesis is the effect of thinking musically, a way of gathering, processing, and deciphering information at a rapid rate. The senses are never more synchronous than when musicking, as a host of sensory inputs are bound by temporal constraints. To think musically is to combine sight, sound, movement, the presence of others and the self, and to find a harmonious balance in a metered, directed amount of time. It is objectively more engaging of the brain than any other modality of thought, due to the temporal element, and it enhances neuroplasticity (the brain’s ability and interest in learning). Sunshine and I are both musicians and are driven to communicate the benefits we’ve experienced first-hand from thinking musically.

Scientific, philosophical, empathetic, and musical thought modalities are but four of many ways to think. They represent different approaches to problem solving, connecting with others, and building community. The greatest thinkers are comfortable moving between thought modalities and help move society forward with innovation and imagination. 

This is what Kid Lit Motivates is aiming to provide. Social and academic content presented in engaging, memorable ways, intending to enhance and model a broader mechanism of thought, an open-mindedness, a structural belief in a movable, self-empowered and self-aware cognition.

The Scientist

Kid Lit Motivates is a small business, run by Sunshine and the Scientist, based in Long Island, New York, which designs custom educational resources and experiences for academic and social goals.

Self-Aware Indecision, Summer 2016

Flashback Post

From time to time, I come across handwritten journal entries that are poignant and worth sharing. In the summer of 2016, I was floundering in the depths of self-awareness. Prior to realizing my neurodivergent status, I struggled with who, what, and how on a daily basis. Others seemed to have it so much more easily, much simpler, much more directly.

Without further ado, if you find yourself where I was, may you find yourself in due time.

Begin transmission.

‘But what do you want to do?’

At 28 years old, with 8 years of advanced education, a teaching license, a therapist’s credential, experience as a party planner, a bartender…

I had not really considered the question openly, What do I want to do?

With staggering nothingness in front and anxious regrets behind, and over $100,000 in student debt on my shoulders, the question just never felt valid. What do I want? To start over. To make those 18-yr-old decisions at 28. To embrace myself for who I am and, somehow, make money doing it.

I write from the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a truly lifelong spot of inspiration. I walked here from Penn Station, some 50 blocks, in this sweltering city heat, on a Tuesday in July. I’m grateful for the hot cement under my kicks. I’m grateful for direction.

I ponder the question of what to do as the lives of millions continue on around me. There is no one answer, but a series of possible futures radiating outward from every conceivable direction. I contemplate the most well-meaning advice from those closest to me.

You love teaching! You’re so good at it!’

You went all the way to Kansas to study music therapy. Open a practice. Make your money.’

‘Get married already.’ – this one, notably, my brother.

But all I want to do is write. Not for one cause, but for hundreds. For parents and children, for teachers and therapists, for people who want to feel connected to someone genuinely open and welcoming. I may be good at helping others, but all I want to do is help myself be better.

End transmission.

To her, the me of that summer, and to you if you’re with her, I say, it gets easier.

Love yourself to find your partner.

Love your ideas to find your mission.

Love your body to find your confidence.

Love your today to find comfort tomorrow.

Keep your growth mindset alive, and keep asking questions.

Photo by Susanne Jutzeler on Pexels.com

To ID or Not ID, That is the Question

Part 2 of Our Autistic Expression

I’ve only just found out myself!’

If you’ve been searching for an answer that you finally possess, with whom do you share and why? Your acceptance at the table is not proof they are acknowledging you for your authentic self. Sometimes they prefer the mask.

For those who were not diagnosed when we were younger, who struggled with facets of our true selves that seemed at constant odds with the majority, and who wrestled with metaphysical questions or shrunk from the crowds, the later-in-life Autistic/Neurodivergent label was a breath of fresh air. Some of us had already mastered masking techniques to blend with our nondivergent peers and some had pursued professions which intentionally played up our uniqueness. This might have been at cost to our self-esteem, mental well-being, physical health, or financial stability. The autistic label helped us find community, inclusion, coping mechanisms, strategies, and ways to verbalize who we are, really. For me, it was the puzzle piece I’d been obsessed with finding, not a missing piece but an explanation.

Photo by Sigmund on Unsplash

I’ve identified as neurodivergent (or autistic, to match familiar vernacular) for 5 years, and in that time, I’ve seen such huge strides for those who are just like me, personally and socially. We may quibble over exactly what labels are most fitting, but it is undeniable how we’ve been benefitted and more openly free to find comfort in modern society. Women, in particular, are finding more of a community than ever before, as masked stand-offish “mean” girls come to terms with their nonconformist beings and are thereby more accepting of their nonconformist peers.

So the question then becomes, now that we carry this encompassing idea of who we are, at what point and for what reasons should we identify ourselves to others? In this second installment of Our Autistic Expression, I’ll discuss my rationalizations and the reactions I’ve received in return.

Photo by John Noonan on Unsplash

From pleasantly surprising to entirely misinformed, the responses I’ve heard have dictated the platform on which I currently stand.

Response 1: Like Minds

‘Are you like me?’

On our first date, after a few hours of an incredible, stimulating, and engaging conversation, my partner (the Scientist) and I sat with one another in awe. It was more than an instant connection — it was a mirroring energy and understanding.

“There’s one more thing I need to tell you,” the Scientist intoned. I was rapt. He could have spent the next hour explaining all of the cell organelles and their function, or describing the many burrito shops in his home town, or pitching his groundbreaking idea in materials engineering, and I would have been present for him entirely. “I’m neurodivergent and I’m different than most people.” He glanced at me sidelong awaiting my reaction, until I squealed, “Me too!”

The conversation that followed encompassed our categorical labels, the ways in which we feel different from average, and the respective searches we’d undertaken to find what fit. It bonded us in an incredibly deep way.

When we find people that we jive with, there’s a certain rhythm to the conversation and an unusually high level of acceptance for experiences and opinions. We identify because we want them to know us and interpret our intentions correctly, and in these instances, nearly always, they identify in return or reveal that they’re on a similar path.

We identify to acknowledge instantaneous acceptance among the like-minded and be known fully for who we are.

Photo by Dulcey Lima on Unsplash

Response 2: Clarity

‘I have so many questions. Someone I know is also autistic.’

Once I’ve identified, and hear this reaction, I’m open-minded to the questions at hand. Perhaps I’ll be able to enlighten this person or help them find common ground for an extended communication with their friend or loved one. Sometimes, ‘for a friend’, I’m really just helping them make peace within themselves. With the combination of my training, passionate pursuit of the subject, clinical experience, and self-awareness, I do feel qualified to answer questions or direct the person toward the information they need.

Recently, I was approached at a pop-up show by a woman in her 50s who was very interested in the social skills-based educational resources I create and the events the Scientist and I coordinate. I explained my perspective that typical and divergent children alike are not necessarily learning social skills in a translatable, accessible way. I’m on the spectrum, I explained, so I tend to have objectively different approaches to solving problems. Her eyes lit up and she responded, “That’s wonderful. I’m dating a man who’s autistic. We’ve only been together a few months, and I’ve learned so much, but I have so many questions. He’s still learning how to communicate what he needs and I’m learning how to listen to those needs.” I encouraged her to email me, outside of the brand and the merchandise, to initiate a conversation, in case I might be able to assist her further in any way.

We identify to build community with our neurotypical peers and help them to understand the cultural transition that is occurring.

Photo by Shane Rounce on Unsplash

Response 3: Disbelief

‘That’s not funny, and it’s really offensive to autistic people.’

Unfortunately, the outdated and traditionalist view of autism is that akin to definitions of incapacity, inability, and unsociability. The stereotypes of an autistic person being incapable of learning complex tasks or communicating in a typical way (either ‘high’ or ‘low’ functioning) have been challenging to break down. There are those who even still believe that autism should not be considered a spectrum at all, that it is a limited disability and not a wide-reaching subset of the population which requires and cultivates differences, individuals existing on the farthest points on some of the many bell curves of society’s averages. There are others who would happily put an autistic label on anyone if it meant funding their healthcare or developmental needs. The scope of misunderstanding is maddening.

When someone responds to my statement with disbelief or disgust, I do my best to maintain perspective. I always double down, explain that it was something I struggled to fully comprehend, something others noticed but couldn’t describe, a revelatory light bulb that burned brighter than nearly any other I’d experienced. “But you’re so…” something, they’ll say, and then I usually feel forced to describe my downtime and the kinds of constructs and boundaries required for me to maintain being “so…something”. I dislike being put in a position where I need to describe the downsides of metacognitive spin, catatonia, apathy, melting down, or cognitive rigidity. Even describing these things esoterically becomes a potential difficulty to surmount, but in my experience it’s the only way to inform a person that meets my truth with disbelief.

We identify to appropriately broaden the public’s understanding of autism, with knowing risk to our well-being.

Photo by Vlad Hilitanu on Unsplash

Response 4: Tone Shift to Ghost

‘I don’t know what to do with that.’

A disquieting silence or physical retraction is not uncommon upon hearing me identify. The tone may shift from pity to silence, as though whatever social connection was brewing before is now not worth continuing in light of the new evidence. There have been those who could not maintain a friendship once the identity was clear, once the masks were off. It’s typically when I am at my most comfortable, most free and open in someone’s presence, that they manifest distance and disappear. I am a lot — I am challenging, driven to succeed, held together by strict guidelines I set for myself alone, and prone to using comedic banter to fill the silence. I very rarely advocate for myself with direct, social confrontation. I’m a quick study and a terrifyingly good mimic, and it’s these traits among others that seem to put people off the fastest.

Photo by Martino Pietropoli on Unsplash

In these instances, we identify to communicate unusual or extraordinary needs, feelings, or experiences, and to ask for adaptation or patience. My actions might require an explanation, and when it’s given, it’s discarded along with my friendship. A hard truth to accept is true nonetheless, and a friend is only a friend if they can befriend the you beneath the surface.

Our Autistic Expression

For some people, I suspect increasingly more people, the urge to announce their neurodivergent nature is growing. For others, I’m sure the desire to remove all labels for fear of isolating or facing the misinformed masses is prominent.

I have wavered on when to tell who what — is it something I keep secret and let them figure out? Is it something I announce after the conversation turns in that direction, or after an uncomfortable moment that was brought on because of it? What will be the social cost to identify or not identify? Do I rely on the person seeing my social posting, my brand identity, or my blog in order to understand me fully? Will knowing I’m neurodivergent change anything about our interaction for the better? I don’t know, but I am thinking about it.

In the meantime, while I’m still fitting the pieces together and understanding my own meandering, I would only ask of you compassion, for myself and others like me. If someone identifies as autistic or neurodivergent, listen to what they’re saying and consider why they’re telling you. They may still be figuring it out too.

Photo by Tim Marshall on Unsplash

We’re all going to figure it out together.

Safe Travels, Christopher Robin

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Hope is all that’s left when you’ve tried your best and nature takes its course.

It was early morning, mid-May, on an unseasonably gray day. Sheets of rain were clattering on my car as I drove to my client’s house. The drive to M’s house was always a thoughtful one, and I was anxious about what I was going to say when I got there.

 I enjoyed the in-home therapeutic sessions I did with autistic kids, without exception. I thrived in an environment that was at times improvisatory and at times highly structured, and I spent my nights and weekends devising appropriate and meaningful interventions to help them reach their goals. We always made progress together. The families I worked with looked to me in different ways — as a counselor, a teacher, a confidant, a sitter — and, following all scientific evidence, all available resources, and my body of clinical experience, I attempted to impart lessons about building relationships, enhancing quality of life, and maintaining a growth mindset. 

It wasn’t just about identifying patterns, sequencing stories, or saying please. It was always about teaching exceedingly complex and particular ideas that could open new pathways of communication and understanding for them and their family.

Photo by Compare Fibre on Unsplash

M’s case was a particularly difficult one, which is why I was chosen by the agency to work with him and his mom, G. My experience and multidisciplinary approach, along with my patience and compassion, would be needed. G’s primary concern was that her teenaged, autistic son was missing a lot of school, “throwing tantrums” (her words) right before he had to get on the bus. I’d been working with M for a few months on creating a consistent routine, using musical cues to prompt and reinforce him through donning his shoes and jacket, and eliciting conversation about things that might happen during the day. Our efforts were variably successful — we might build a streak of eight school days, but the “tantrums” would return. 

In cases like these, it was important to look at the antecedent and reinforcing behaviors — what was leading up to and what was following — M’s seemingly sudden, strong refusal to go, which, when paired with both G and M becoming agitated, then led to a meltdown. 

There are myriad factors that influence every decision, action and reaction for an autistic person. These are in addition to the physiological reactions they may experience at greater or lesser magnitudes than their neurotypical counterparts, and in addition to the potential difficulties identifying or communicating their needs, preferences, and anxieties. If, like M, they struggle to verbally identify their needs, environmental controls are put in place to narrow down what may be leading to the issue at hand, in conjunction with attempting new pathways of communication and creating or enhancing a sense of self (self-awareness.) 

To my most objective observations, there was one clear and unfortunate obstacle to M building a consistent routine and finding regular comfort and success with the primary objective.

Photo by Ryoji Iwata on Unsplash

G was that obstacle, the only reason the case was so difficult for me, and the cause of my concern as I drove to session that day. A parent’s impact on their child is always complicated and difficult to view objectively, but I’d already seen and heard too many markers for concern. 

For all of the time I spent explaining to G that her son was capable of learning, that he had shown signs of improvement, and that progress would at the very least require her to maintain emotional stability during the transitional time, G showed very little desire to learn or adapt. She would listen raptly through my explanations, then immediately launch into an unrelated story about how difficult M could be, how he’d made a mistake earlier in the week, or how she’d had to miss work again. M and I could be having a peaceful conversation at the breakfast table, when G would enter the room, complain loudly that M “better not pull something today”, and then lay out a complicated series of punishments and prizes he could expect depending on how he acted. 

It was baffling and deplorable. I struggled to steady myself as I neared the house. Five miles to go. Deep breaths. More presence of mind. It would be a difficult conversation. As a therapist, it was my job to maintain objectivity, a professional demeanor, and an emotional distance, all while advocating for M. Focus on the particulars, not the ideals. Move one tree at a time, don’t attempt to demolish the entire forest in a sweeping overaction. Four miles to go.

Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

 In some ways, G was treating her teenaged son like a forever-baby and worse. She believed he would never learn, never cease “throwing tantrums”, and never be anything less than her burden to bear. She jumped in to speak for him when he hesitated, so he often remained silent when she was around. She spoke about him in the third person while he was in the room. She refused to teach or let him learn about his changing, teenaged body, and she allowed him to cuddle beside her in her bed on a regular basis. 

In other ways, G seemed to think M should act like an adult. 

“He’s doing this to challenge me,” she’d say at the top of her voice, while he jumped under her covers in her bedroom to escape the bus. 

“I know you know what you’re doing to me,” she’d cajole, as he lay face-down on the carpet in the foyer. 

“Lori (me) is very mad at you,” she’d growl, while I stared at her incredulously, shaking my head vigorously and making x’s with my arms. 

“If you don’t go to school today, I won’t let you have your iPad on Saturday, which you earned yesterday for doing such a good job, and then Lisa (sitter) will be very upset with you and she won’t take you to play basketball like I promised yesterday,” she’d threaten and bribe simultaneously. 

Then, when he inevitably missed the bus, G would wring her hands and wax happily nostalgic for a time when he was smaller, easier to carry around, easier to control, and not so challenging. G knew M was listening, hiding at the top of the stairs or in the next room, but could not see that her own attitude might be creating the problem at hand, or at the very least complicating it. 

Photo by Joshua Hoehne on Unsplash

On this bleak and brisk day, I was going to insist that G remove herself entirely from the situation for the foreseeable future. M was capable of waking up, getting dressed, brushing his teeth, and eating breakfast independently. I’d be there to help with his shoes, jacket, and getting on the bus. I rehearsed the words in my head over and over again on the drive that day. 

“At this point, and given everything we’ve seen, the treatment team has decided collectively on a path moving forward.” I planned to pause here, and take a breath. Then, “To understand M’s needs and challenges while transitioning to the bus, we need you to remove yourself from the environment. You can stay in your room with the door closed, or take a walk in the neighborhood, or sit in the backyard obliviously. But under no circumstance can you continue to be present in the kitchen, foyer, or living room while M and I are in session. Mothers have a very powerful effect on their children, and it would be good to know how your presence may be influencing him.” I expected she would be distraught about this and argue, but thought I might be able to get her to commit to being absent on a trial basis to gather data.  

Photo by Daria Rudyk on Unsplash

I knew M wouldn’t automatically cease having trouble boarding the bus, but I absolutely needed to control for the most caustic and unpredictable variable in the room. I was confident that if she would allow for this change, I could begin to understand the situation. 

I was shaken from my rationalizing suddenly. The black SUV several car lengths ahead on this busy, suburban street hydroplaned and skidded to a stop. Into the SUV’s driver’s side door, an American Robin (AMRO) dove with spectacular force, turning to his side at the last minute. Even with my radio on and the sound of the pelting rain on my car’s roof, I heard the collision. 

Flying in the rain is particularly dangerous for birds for two reasons. Smaller birds risk trapping water among the air pockets of their feathers and contracting hypothermia. Larger birds struggle to get enough aerodynamic lift in the dense air of low-pressure systems. I suspect that this robin was suffering the latter on this rainy, spring day.

Photo by Kiarash Mansouri on Unsplash

My heart was breaking. I slowly drove past the robin as he lay in the center of the road. I didn’t know if he was alive or dead, but I knew that he could easily be crushed by someone swerving to avoid the poorly draining shoulders. One short block past, panicked, I pulled a tight U-turn. I’d never be able to forgive myself if I didn’t go back. He didn’t deserve to die in the street like that. I threw my hazards on and jumped out into the road.

Drenching in the downpour, I scooped up the robin in canvas I normally used for school supplies. The AMRO was alive, stunned but present. I wrapped him carefully, held him gingerly, and drove with one hand to the nearest side street. I snapped a quick pic and texted a friend who owned a few canaries (They did not respond in time to assist.) I’m not a veterinarian or bird expert by any means, but the Amro seemed to be alright. His feet and wings all seemed in tact and at the proper angles. Though he was stock still, his eye blinked occasionally and seemed to follow my face. With no time to take him to a hospital, I made the difficult decision to place him between a bush and a giant oak tree, nestled between the visible roots. I jumped back in my car, shaken, and dried off as I drove the last mile or so to M’s house.

Photo by Lori Siesto, Author

I wish I could say that I successfully communicated the plan to G, but M was already beginning to make refusals when I arrived. I gathered myself, apologized for my lateness quickly, and succeeded in helping M calm from a screaming wail to a slow sob as the bus pulled away. He had chosen independently to go to his own room, rather than his mother’s bed, and I was optimistic that the sessions might be having a positive effect. 

When I returned to the kitchen, G had some news. Due to M’s many absences, she’d been informed that he would have to repeat his current grade level. The school had recommended he continue attending for the remaining month or so, for stability. To minimize her stress, she whispered, she’d decided just today, just now, to remove him from school entirely and start fresh in the fall. She couldn’t do it anymore. She’d already been in the process of buying a new condo in another state. A new school, a new state, and new friends would do M good. Wouldn’t that be nice, to start over? She was musing, I was fuming.

For a teenager that had difficulty transitioning from his home to the bus, I wondered what made her confident that he would transition easily from his home to another, newer, far away home, a new school, and entirely new people. I managed to gently mention something to that effect, despite the bile that was rising within me. She pretended not to hear me and said she was looking forward to selling their current home. Then, she terminated our sessions. 

Photo by NON on Unsplash

Typically, I insisted on several sessions prior to termination, in order to help ease the transition. It could be very harmful to simply pull a kid from his therapist, then his school, his friends, and his home. He should be offered the opportunity to prepare himself for the change and to say goodbye properly. G announced it would be unnecessary. He would not be taking the bus any longer, so my services were no longer required. I did my best to say goodbye to M, who did not understand that it was the last time he’d ever see me. G lifted his wrist and shook it back and forth to approximate him waving, something he had done many times on his own. 

The hottest, most enraging tears mingled with the bone chilling rain as I returned to my car, defeated. 

After taking notes and informing the team of what I’d learned, I drove back to where I’d placed the AMRO. I’d only been at M’s house for 20 minutes. Perhaps I could bring the AMRO to the wildlife vet or check to ensure he was still breathing.

Photo by Joel Swick on Unsplash

I approached the oak tree slowly, careful not to shock him. I crouched down over the root system to find… nothing. There was no trace of him. If he’d been eaten, there would have been feather fragments or tracks. In my heart, I knew he had survived. Perhaps he’d hopped into the bushes nearby or even found a crevice in the enormous oak in which to wait out the rain. 

I’ll never know if G went through with her grand reinvention, or if M ever found ways to cope with the changes, or with his self-centered, deluded mother. I am hopeful that as he grows up some of what we did together will stay with him and help him along his path. 

We may help save a life with our smallest acts of compassion, but we may never know the full effects of what our actions have wrought.