Actualización V de Nicaragua: Hoy Comienza un Año Mejor (Esperamos)

This is a follow-up to my last post, on Martin’s questions about Otto Warmbier.

More conversations have been happening. Last week, Martin initiated this dialogue with me:

Martin: “Mommy, even though the other kids made fun of me, I still think I had a pretty good year in school last year.”

Me: “You thought there was more good than bad in the school year?”

Martin: “Yes.”

Me: “How about this summer at camp? Did you feel like the kids at camp made fun of you, too?”

Martin: “Sometimes they did, but like less than at school.”

Me: “Was it a good summer at camp?”

Martin: “I think it was a good summer.”

Me: “I remember, when I was little, how sometimes kids made fun of me. I didn’t like that. It hurt my feelings.”

Martin: “When did they stop making fun of you?”

Me: “I would say things changed in high school. That’s when I found new friends, more like me, who had some more interests like mine.”

Martin: “High school?”

Me: “But you never know. It could get better every year. Third grade might be a lot better than second grade. You’ll have new kids in your class.”

Martin: “Yeah. I think third grade is probably going to be pretty good.”

Posted without additional commentary.

Actualización IV de Nicaragua: Korea del Norte

Martin’s new thing is to request “a little chat” before he goes to sleep. “Mommy, can we have our little chat? Then can you send Daddy in for a little chat?” Participating in the little chat requires me to climb into bed and lie next to him as he answers questions about his day, talks about what’s to come, and then requests a nighttime assurance of how much I love him. “Do you see the ceiling fan, how it spins?” I say, or something similar. “Imagine how many times it would spin in a million years. Put that number with every drop of water in the Pacific ocean. You can add in the Atlantic and the Indian oceans, too. Those spiders in the jungle? All the spiders in all the jungles, and all the legs on all the spiders and all the tiny hairs on all the spiders’ legs. Add that all together, and still I love you more.”

The nighttime chat also the time when Martin’s fears and anxieties bubble up—who’s been unkind to him, what he doesn’t want to do. I’m pleased to report that, since we came to Nicaragua, the fears and anxieties have been fewer and farther between.

Since we are living abroad, one topic we discuss frequently, both in our nighttime chats and otherwise, is geography and geopolitical concerns. Martin has memorized the seven nations of Central America by size, both area and population, along with their capitals and order from the Mexican border to the Columbian. He asked if we could make an excursion to Honduras, and I said no because I consider Honduras too dangerous. This got him interested in “dangerous countries.” I tried to explain other nations where I would not travel at this time, and why: South Sudan because of civil war, for example, or Syria because of domestic conflict, Venezuela because of mistaken government policies and newfound resource scarcity, North Korea because of an oppressive regime.

I wasn’t too surprised, therefore, when Martin began one night’s little chat by asking, “Do you know something funny about North Korea?” and then informed me that “a kid at camp” had told him a story about North Korea. I was instantly suspicious. Martin likes to make things up and claim he heard them from someone. Which kid? I asked. A new girl who’s older than he is and whose name he doesn’t know, he replied. Hmmmm. Okay. What was the story?

Martin proceeded to tell me that there was an American boy who tried to take a poster he wasn’t supposed to take in North Korea, and so just because of the poster the North Koreans punched him in the head so hard that he went to sleep for two years, and when he woke up from being asleep for two years, he died and it was very sad.

As Martin rambled, relaying the tale the nameless older girl had given him, I realized that this wasn’t made up at all. He was giving me the basics of the fate of Otto Warmbier, the University of Virginia student arrested January 2016 in North Korea for allegedly stealing a political poster from a restricted floor in his hotel. Plainly, Martin actually had been told this story, and accurately was repeating to me what he’d been told.

Martin concluded by asking me whether this North Korean tale really had happened.

I’ve never before witnessed this level of engagement from Martin. It hasn’t been so long since I was overjoyed when Martin became able to tell me whether his sneakers were at school. This North Korea discussion was so far beyond answering basic questions. Martin must have been talking to this girl at camp, listening to what she said, and comprehending the information. He retained the story basics and sought confirmation at home. He initiated the conversation with me.

I didn’t bother correcting any details, like whether we know punches to the head caused Warmbier’s death, or that he was detained 18 months instead of two years. I said, “That terrible story is true. Those things happened to a young American man who was visiting North Korea.”

“What was his name?” Martin asked.

“Otto Warmbier. He was a student at the University of Virginia.”

“When did he die?”

“I can’t remember. It must have been a couple months ago now.”

“I think he died the first week I had camp.”

“You might be right.”

“It’s very sad.”

I could see Martin becoming anxious, so I said, “It is very sad. North Korea is a dangerous place. But do you know what? Nicaragua is not. You are safe here in your bed. Abuela is sleeping in the same room, and who else is in the house? Samara is here, and I am here, and Daddy is here. And who’s outside? Señor Pedro is outside. You are safe.”

Señor Pedro is our house’s cuidador (the caretaker or nighttime guard), who has a room in the garden. Martin loves Señor Pedro.

Once Martin was reassured and asleep, I went on-line to check when Otto Warmbier died. June 19. Martin started camp Monday, July 17, so no. He was off by a month. I don’t know whether the girl at camp told him Warmbier had died the first week of camp, or whether somewhere in the background of his extraordinary memory was a snippet of news he’d heard/seen and mistaken the date.

But I do know this: I am a closer than ever to knowing how it feels to converse typically with my son.

Curse the Night

Christmas Day, 1:30 am.

I lie, awake, next to Martin, in his bed. He too is awake. Christmas Eve he went to bed about 8:30 pm, eager to get to sleep so that Santa could come, and dropped off immediately. Adrian was seeing Star Wars: The Force Awakens with my father and brothers, so I had time to finish wrapping gifts and even bake some ginger spice cookies, which turned out terrific. I thought about updating my Facebook status with some ditty about the peace and tranquility of Christmas Eve.

At 11:40 pm, just as Adrian and I had gone to bed, Martin woke. Night waking, like bedwetting, is so rare nowadays that I can’t remember the last time it happened. Martin can still take a while to fall asleep, but once he does, he’s out till morning. Tonight, he called out, saying he thought he saw it getting light outside, and asking whether Santa had come. I told him that it wasn’t even midnight yet, and that he could go back to sleep.

He hasn’t gone back to sleep. He is so concerned with getting back to sleep for Santa Claus that he’s worked himself into an anxiety attack, crying and wheezing. Adrian spent some time trying to comfort him, to no avail. Since 1:15 am, I’ve been here, in Martin’s bed, soothing him, hoping for sleep of my own, wondering what Christmas Day will be like when I’m exhausted.

Here’s the thing about being awake in the middle of the night: When I’m lying in the darkness, all my fears grow. Every single fear. From work deadlines to household finances to body image—they get worse. Problems loom insurmountable. I think about this issue and that issue, this concern and that concern, until finally I crash into the unmentionable fear: that if Martin never recovers fully, this will be my life forever. Autism will be my life forever. There will never be a time when my child achieves independence. There will never be a time when I can turn back to my non-Martin goals, to what I want to achieve for me.

Why do I call that fear “unmentionable”? Because it is selfish. Because it borders on blaming Martin for my own shortcomings. Because it affixes my personal journey to factors that depend on Martin but over which he has no control. Because my official position is that Martin will recover fully, and it’s only in the wee hours that doubt makes inroads. It’s only when I want to be sleeping, or reading, or writing, or even working, or anything other than lying next to a boy who can’t stop fidgeting, crying, laughing—only then do I think, “What if he’s done getting better? What if this is as good as it gets?”

It’s just better not to mention it.

Christmas Day, noon.

I must have dozed off, in Martin’s bed, sometime after 2:00 am. I woke at 3:50 am to find him asleep, finally, and then I returned to my own bed.

I woke again at 7:45 am, to the breathtaking melody of Martin, down the hall, conversing with my father, who is visiting. (Yes. Conversing. Answering questions and asking them in turn. How old are you, Poppa? That’s old. I’m seven. What year was it when you were seven? Grandma was already born then. Are you older than Grandma?) We had left one special gift unwrapped by the tree, and Martin played with that until everyone was up and ready to open gifts. Once all the gifts were unwrapped, Martin asked:

“Is there another gift to me from Santa?”

I realized right away what he wanted. The trombone. When he’d made his Christmas list, he’d included a trombone. At the time, the trombone seemed no more desired than the other gifts, most of which he received. In the day or two before Christmas, long after all gifts had been purchased, the trombone acquired new gravitas. Martin began to speak frequently of the trombone Santa was bringing him, and how he planned to learn to play the trombone, and how he would become good enough to play in a marching band by high school. Trombone, trombone, trombone. But seriously, I was not going to interrupt all other plans to procure a toy trombone.

“No, honey. I think that’s all that Santa brought you.”

Martin started to cry. “‘You get what you get?’ You just get what you get?” He was quoting our pastor, who upon assigning parts for the Christmas pageant had told the kids, “No complaining. You get what you get.”

I conveyed to Adrian why Martin was upset—I mimed playing the trombone—and Adrian moved in to comfort him, explaining that Santa might have thought that he is still too young to learn the trombone and needs to wait another year.

And then—Martin pulled it together. He was still upset, but he stopped the tears and moved to pouting and whining instead. No full-blown meltdown. No screaming. He asked, “Santa thinks I’m too young? Maybe next year?” All in all, the response seemed more age-appropriate than autism-indicative.

It’s noon now. Everyone has eaten a special Christmas breakfast, which was gluten-free French toast with cranberry compote. Martin played with his new gifts (he’s favoring a set of Beatles figures, and also a “play the trombone” app I downloaded hastily to his iPad) and then accompanied Adrian to the gym. My brothers are playing backgammon. My father is napping. The house is quiet. I’m starting to prepare Christmas dinner: cannellini-bean latkes, roasted Brussels sprouts leaves, and quinoa pilaf. Last night’s fears are last night’s fears.

I’m thinking about updating my Facebook status with some ditty about the peace and tranquility of Christmas Day.

Closer?

Time for another dispatch about church. I write a lot of dispatches about church, because (1) we’re there once a week (or so), giving me a convenient, less-than-daily forum to mark progress; (2) I see Martin with other children, and with adults; and (3) Martin always seems to be engaging in adorable antics at church.

The scene: Pastor has called the children to the chancel for their sermonette before they head to Sunday school. The dialogue: I wasn’t recording, so I’m going to do my faithful best to recreate:

Pastor:            “Good morning, children.”

Children:        “Good morning, Pastor!”

I distinctly hear Martin’s voice amidst the half dozen children. He calls out clearly, “Good morning, Pastor!”

Pastor:            “Today’s lesson was about a mustard seed, a tiny mustard seed. Do you know how some people always think bigger is better?”

Martin:           “No, bigger isn’t better!”

The same clear voice, calling out. The entire church can hear him, I’m sure.

Pastor:            “You don’t think so, Martin?”

Martin:           “No, I don’t like bigger.”

Pastor:            “I suppose when I was your age, I also liked smaller better.”

Martin:           “I’m six years old, but I’m almost seven.”

Now he’s monopolizing children’s time, still clear as a bell.

Pastor:            “When is your birthday?”

Martin:           “It’s this month! It’s the last Tuesday of this month.”

Pastor:            “So you’ll be getting bigger, like this mustard seed.”

Martin:           “Um, look at my new shoes!”

Whoops. Nonsequitur. I suppose Martin wanted to keep the floor but didn’t know how to follow the mustard-seed thought. By now members of the congregation are tittering good-naturedly.

Pastor:            “Where did you get those?”

Martin:           “At the store.”

Pastor:            “It must have been Stride-Rite. Your shoes say ‘Stride-Rite’ on them.”

Martin:           “Yes, of course it was Stride-Rite!”

The congregation laughs. The pastor manages to squeeze in another sentence or two about the mustard seed, then dismisses the children to Sunday school. As their little procession passes down the aisle, Martin looks at me, waves, and calls out, “’Bye, Mommy! I’m going downstairs now,” to the ooohs and aahs of those around me.

After the service, as the pews are emptying and then during coffee hour, I am approached by four different parishioners, each calling Martin “adorable” or “cute.” Even better, one woman who knows Martin has autism comments on how much he’s coming out of his shell. Best of all, an older woman with whom I’ve never shared the diagnosis says, “Your son is so articulate!”

Wait. She doesn’t just say that Martin is articulate. She swoons.

Martin, articulate? My son? Glad I happen to be standing in church, because I’m doing a lot of praising God.

Last month at the AutismOne conference, I met this amazing Supermom from Minnesota, who is working to recover her not-yet-verbal 12-year-old son. At lunch one day with other moms, we started sharing pictures and videos of our kiddos. I called up out a particularly strong performance—a video Adrian and Martin taped from bed that morning, telling me what they planned to do with the day—and handed the Minnesota mom my iPhone.

She watched the video, handed back the phone, and said, “I don’t want to diminish the struggles I know you have, but if I watched that video without knowing more, I would think your son was typically developing.”

Right there, at Maria’s Mexican Restaurant behind the Loews Chicago O’Hare Hotel, I started to cry.

Year 2014 in Review

A year ago, I woke up on New Year’s morning with the conviction that 2014 would be a banner year in Martin’s recovery.

It’s time for a look back at 2014.

Martin and a boy he played with on the beach, Florida Keys, New Year's 2014.

Martin and a boy he played with on the beach, Florida Keys, New Year’s 2014.

We started several interventions to which, for a change, Martin plainly seemed to respond. (I write “for a change” because these were some of the few times when I was able to isolate particular interventions that helped. More often, it’s just something in “the whole package.”) When I posted in late July about five treatments that were “working now,” I also posted my frustration in jumping to conclusions based on initial positive results. I’m going to report now that at least two of those five “what’s working now” treatments, six months later, still are kicking autism’s butt: camel milk and Candex. Martin’s language took off immediately following the introduction of camel milk, and it hasn’t stopped since. Did you Tuesday’s post about the conversationalist? How cool was that? As for the Candex, Martin still has yeast flares. (I’ve come to accept that candida overgrowth may be a battle we fight for many years. Therein may lie our war.) Since we started using Candex, however, those flares have been milder and of shorter duration. They’ve been manageable.

Martin with his cousin Mandy in the snow, February 2014.

Martin with his cousin Mandy in the snow, February 2014.

And the other three “working now” treatments, the GAPS diet, Enhansa™, and MitoSpectra? We are still on all three. I modified the GAPS diet by adding quinoa and reducing Martin’s meat consumption to one meal per day. (The reduction of meat isn’t particularly a “modification,” I suppose, though it felt that way.) I think Martin’s gut health is better than ever, though I wish he weren’t still prone to yeast flares. As to Enhansa, Martin’s chronic inflammation appears to have eased; I can’t say whether the Enhansa is responsible, or general improvement in gut health. I may stop the Enhansa, as an experiment, and see what happens. I plan to keep the MitoSpectra, for the time being. I reduced Martin’s dosage when a blood test revealed high levels of carnatine, and I feel like I could be doing more for his mitochondrial functioning (hence the quinoa). I’m keeping the MitoSpectra because I haven’t yet discovered that next best thing.

Martin at Planting Fields Arboretum State Historic Park, Oyster Bay, New York, Spring 2014.

Martin at Planting Fields Arboretum State Historic Park, Oyster Bay, New York, Spring 2014.

In the second half of the year, after my “What’s Working Now” post, we started vision(-ish) therapy with Dr. Deborah Zelinsky; Heilkunst homeopathy with Rudi Verspoor; and a weekly facilitated social group with local kids. So far, I give all three a big thumbs up. We are in another period when “things are going well” but I’m not totally sure why. I may be observing a slight uptick in Martin’s eye contact and attention span. I’ll give that development to Dr. Zelinsky. Martin had a fever and apparent healing reaction over the Christmas break. That goes to the Heilkunst. As for the social group, that’s a confidence-builder. Martin is happy to have friends of his own. Last week, for the first time, he asked to bring a game that everyone could play—the lovely wildlife bingo set his uncle Eddie gave him.

Martin rock climbing at a birthday party, July 2014.

Martin rock climbing at a birthday party, July 2014.

Did I make mistakes in 2014? Of course I did. I think the straight-up GAPS diet had too few carbs to meet Martin’s mitochondrial needs. I know there is debate on this point. For my child, I should have known; way back in 2011, when we first went grain-free, Martin showed signs of mild ketoacidosis, and we had to add a few gluten-free grains back in. This time around, I should have guessed that he would need more carbs than GAPS allows.

Martin with his uncle Rudy, Strasbourg, France, August 2014.

Martin with his uncle Rudy, Strasbourg, France, August 2014.

I rushed treatments. The mother who launched our biomedical journey cautioned me against the urge to do everything at once. Nevertheless, when I find an intervention that excites me, I might move too quickly. Even today, four years into Martin’s recovery, I’m prone to that amateur mistake. Other times, I just fail to pay attention and mistakenly start two treatments together. C’est la vie.

Martin looking over St. Bartholomá church, on the Königsee, Berchtesgadan, Germany, August 2014.

Martin looking over St. Bartholomá church, on the Königsee, Berchtesgadan, Germany, August 2014.

Despite my tendency to rush, though, I think honestly I can peg 2014 as the year when I internalized “marathon not sprint.” Sure, for years now I’ve parroted the mantra. Autism recovery is a marathon, not a sprint. Autism recovery is a marathon, not a sprint. But what kind of marathon did I really envision? In my “banner year” post, last January, I wrote, “I now understand ‘the long haul,’” and “I no longer fear that some mythical window will close while Martin is five . . ., or seven, or any age.” Even after I wrote that, however, the notions took some time to sink in. It wasn’t until November, when I wrote the “Journey” post, that I finally abandoned the idea that this process will have an end date. Striving for better health may well be a perennial task, one that Martin needs to continue even after he becomes responsible for his own care. Autism recovery is not a sprint. It isn’t even a marathon. Autism recovery is a lifestyle.

Martin hiking in the Adirondack mountains, near the Great Sacandaga Lake, August 2014.

Martin hiking in the Adirondack mountains, near the Great Sacandaga Lake, August 2014.

Behavior-wise, in 2014 Martin took new interest in socializing with other kids. Although he still isolates himself when he becomes overwhelmed, for the most part he wants to be near his friends, even if just to play side-by-side on iPads. Late in the year, Martin also (finally) made progress on nighttime potty training. He wakes now when he needs the potty, and yells for me. “Thanks, kid.” Language-wise, in 2014—well, wow. Martin has been asking “why” questions (like, gazillions of why questions) for a long time now; in 2014, he started answering them, coherently. He’s become conversational, staying on point for multiple exchanges. He can talk on the phone. This afternoon he’s going to call Uncle Eddie and wish him happy birthday! And the perseveration has decreased. Did I mention that the perseveration has decreased? Yeah, the perseveration has decreased. Such a relief.

Martin, on the left, with his cousin Luke, in the Florida Keys, New Year's 2015.

Martin, on the left, with his cousin Luke, in the Florida Keys, New Year’s 2015.

I am pleased to conclude that 2014 was a banner year in Martin’s recovery. All signs point to significant improvement in health, and corresponding changes in behavior.

May it be one banner year among many.

 

No Yeast?

Poor yeast, gets all the blame.

I posted yesterday that Martin is in Symptomatic Itchy-ville, and that a yeast imbalance is to blame.

We made it to the doctor appointment (an hour late, with that “patchy fog” to thank), and the doctor thinks Martin’s sandpaper skin looks more like massive detox than yeast overgrowth. To the credit of this theory, we entered Symptomatic Itchy-ville right around the time last month when we reached full dose of takuna, a detoxifying agent.

That’s Martin’s way: His digestive tract isn’t as good as it should be at spitting out bad stuff, so his skin overcompensates. One thing good, one thing bad.

Isn’t that just like our life right now? Martin skips and perseverates and self-stimulates by running laps. He’s grouchy; everything is a tantrum. He was up, in our shared hotel room, from 2:00 am-5:00 am, laughing hysterically in detox mode. (I know he wasn’t actually drunk. I made him carry a jug of drinking water into the hotel last night, a Herculean effort that left no little hands free for smuggling alcohol.)

Those challenging aspects make it easy to overlook the good that’s happening. In the doctor’s office yesterday, Martin jumped on the trampoline higher and with more coordination than ever. He jumped in circles and announced, “I’m jumping in circles.” When he was trying to fall asleep last night—late last night—he called from the bedroom of our hotel “suite”:

“Mommy!”

Parked on a sofa in front of the ChiefsSteelers game, I responded: “I’m eating dinner, Martin. Go to sleep.”

“Maybe later you’ll come to bed and shut the bedroom door.”

I’d left the door between the bedroom and main room ajar, so Martin wouldn’t be scared. I called, “Do you want me to shut the door now?”

“No. Maybe later.”

It might not sound like much, but that’s a conversation, or the beginning of one, in any event.

We’re surviving the not-so-good because there is also good.

And maybe because it’s not yeast. I’m not sure I have the strength for another full-out war on yeast.