This Ain’t Nicaragua

Last summer in Nicaragua, Martin flew. He soared. He matured. He grew. If I could have found a way to stay in Nicaragua without being separated from Adrian (whose job in New York sustains our travels and biomed), I would have done so.

Now cut off, for safety’s sake, from Nicaragua, I brought Martin to Costa Rica and assumed he would soar again.

But not so much.

He’s spending too much time in tiny-dictator mode: objecting to every idea, listening carefully for plans to complain about, agitating me because he can’t release his own emotions. He’s trying to prescribe who’s allowed to speak Spanish, or English, and when. And crazy opposite-talking, constantly. Yesterday, upon discovering that he was having coconut-banana tostada for breakfast instead of smoked salmon, he launched into a tirade directing me never to give him smoked salmon again.

For sure, it took several weeks for Martin to hit his stride last summer in Nicaragua. Nevertheless, by the end of July—I just ran through my contemporaneous posts—I was noticing improvement. Today is August 1, and Martin does not seem improved since we arrived here a month ago.

I don’t know why not. He’s constantly in saltwater, as he was last summer. He attends day camp. Although his diet isn’t great (corn, juices, way too much rice at camp, just like in Nicaragua), I stuff him with fresh local fruits and vegetables when possible. We’re doing herx water and dry brushing. (And what we are dealing with right now looks more like anxiety than the silliness I associate with detox.) We continue his Lyme- and parasite-fighting protocol, and the only pills I’ve run out of so far are HistDAO, i.e., enzymes for breaking down dietary histamines. (Had more sent to a friend, who will bring it next week when she arrives for a visit.)

Possibly some environmental factor is agitating him, like hidden mold in our rental house, or airborne allergens. The climate, flora, fauna here in Guanacaste resemble southwestern Nicaragua (fewer butterflies, though), but of course nothing is exact. We might have happened, last summer, upon a magic combination of factors, from jungle to supportive community, that cannot be replicated elsewhere. Of course, I can’t discount the simpler explanation that Martin’s current protocol is burdening his system, or that he’s just in a different place in his recovery process than a year ago. He’s always in a different place, right? This morning on Facebook, a friend with a severely affected child referred to “playing pin the tail on this donkey of a medical mystery.” That’s apt.

We keep plugging on.

Tomorrow Martin is signed up for his first-ever surf lesson.

Because why not?

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Martin versus the world. Or at least the ocean.

Otra vez, aquí estamos. Hasta Septiembre

We are back in Central America. Alas, not in Nicaragua, el país más bonito de mi corazón. We planned to return to Nicaragua this summer, and held fast to that plan as long as we could. During June, however, the political violence reached as far south as where we stayed last year, in the Department of Rivas; north of Rivas city, a young man was killed defending a tranque against pro-government forces. Shortly thereafter, the director of Martin’s day camp (and one of Martin’s Nicaragua-based cheerleaders-in-chief) notified me that they would likely not have enough kids to run camp this year. At that point, we canceled our summer house rental, sent part of the deposit to a trusted friend in Rivas to distribute among local families most in need, and hastily assembled a new summer.

This is of course an autism-recovery blog, not a political blog, and I am no expert on Central American politics. I will limit my comments about the Nicaraguan situation to this: Daniel Ortega is unleashing this violence upon the very families who, a generation ago, fought for the right to elect him. The people of Nicaragua don’t deserve these troubles. Please look for ways to support Nicaraguan self-determination.

So Martin and I find ourselves on the other side of a border, in Guanacaste, Costa Rica (with hopes to cross, later, into Nicaragua at Peñas Blancas and visit our friends there). You may recall that Costa Rica was where I first noticed how well Martin does in the Central American environment. Even as we mourn our time in Nicaragua, I am grateful to be here: grateful that we were able to rent a house on short notice, grateful that I found a community with a day camp, grateful for daily saltwater swims and abundant  sunshine. This area is populated by gringos here temporarily, chasing the pura vida, and I don’t have much hope of finding the same kind of lasting connections we made in Nicaragua, where the gringos tend to be long-term ex-pat residents. No worries, though. Everything else is grand.

Martin started day camp last week. I had corresponded in advance with the camp director about Martin’s food and environmental allergies. (When you’re talking about Central American activities, “allergic to horses” becomes surprisingly relevant.) The tougher conversation, about Martin’s real challenges, I left to have in-person; giving advance notice, in writing, of Martin’s social and attention deficits tends to create an image that can be hard to shake, even after Martin himself appears. I remember still the remark of a German relative, years ago, when she first met Martin: “Als ich das Wort gehört habe—Autismus—habe ich mir was ganz anders vorgestellt”: “When I heard that word—autism—I imagined something else entirely.” We no longer have the A word to fear, but preconceptions nonetheless pose dangers. The first day of camp, I stole the director for a few minutes. I said that Martin had some previous language delays, and because he is still catching up, he struggles with social interactions. He wouldn’t give them any trouble about participating, I explained, but we do worry about bullying and hope they will keep an eye out for that.

“That will be no problem,” the director replied. “We’ve had all kinds of kids at camp. Even kids with autism.”

“Oh!” I said. “If you’ve had kids with autism, you can certainly handle Martin. It’s nothing like that.”

Ultima Actualización de Nicaragua: Diagnóstico

I still remember the first time I was asked if Martin had a diagnosis. That first time, it came as an indirect question. It was November 2010. Martin was two years and four months old. We had no official diagnosis, only my high-school friend’s assessment: “I know this isn’t easy to hear, but based on what I’ve seen, Martin has autism.” Martin had stopped pointing and started posturing, squatting to crunch the pain in his gut. He’d also lost eye contact. He’d done more than lost eye contact. He was aggressively avoiding eye contact. Whenever he perceived a face near his, he thrust his eyes sideways.

“Yeah, what is that? Is something wrong?” A friend asked. Martin, bundled in winter gear and strapped almost immobile into a stroller, was still managing to turn his head, move his eyes, anything to avoid looking at her. Unprepared, I fumbled an answer, “Um, technically, I think some people might call it ‘high-functioning autism,’ but we’re still figuring things out. Probably it’s fine.”

Here is my last post on Nicaragua (this year, at least): I can’t remember, since November 2010, ever going two whole months without being asked, “Does he have a diagnosis?”

Thank you, Nicaraguans and ex-pats. Thank you for not caring about a diagnosis.

Actualización VI de Nicaragua: Un Projecto Comunidad

We’ve returned, reluctantly, to the States, and I’ve got some time to reflect on the Nicaraguan experience.

I think one reason that Martin felt so at home in Nicaragua—one reason that we felt so at home in Nicaragua—was that Martin seemed to become almost a community project, among both the ex-pats and the Nicaraguans with whom we interacted.

Martin loves to zip-line. We had two adventure parks near us. The first park created a “good-customer discount” for Martin: As long as someone accompanied him, Martin participated for free. The second park held a staff meeting and decided that because Martin is un niño nervioso—an “anxious boy”—he should receive 30% off all adventures, so he could build his confidence through outdoor activity. Martin’s favorite seafood restaurant served octopus with dairy-based garlic sauce. Martin loved the octopus, so the kitchen workers took it upon themselves to create an oil-based garlic sauce just for him. Waiters, gatekeepers, and cuidadors went out of their way to greet him. A local surf shop, owned by a German national, outfitted Martin with a collection of its beach wear, for free, on the basis that having a cool look would help Martin feel good about himself. We didn’t ask for these accommodations. They just happened, because, apparently, un niño nervioso needs a boost now and then.

And in Nicaragua there was never a question about whether Martin could accomplish something, just how to go about it best. I volunteered to send Samara to day camp with Martin, as a sort of helper/aide. Not necessary, the directors told me the first week; he was doing fine independently, they said, and Samara would coddle him too much in front of the other kids. “Would you let me teach your son to surf?” asked one of my coaches at the local gym, also a surf instructor. “If he can ski and skate, I know he can surf.” The third-and-fourth-grade teacher at the international school encouraged me to consider enrolling Martin there. She said, “My background is in special education. I know he’d fit right in, in my classroom.”

Once, when we were out to dinner, Martin asked permission to leave our table and eat with a half-Nicaraguan friend, Alejandro, and Alejandro’s American grandfather. (Martin had his iPad, and the boys decided to play Minecraft together.) The next day I encountered the grandfather and struck up a conversation. “You might have noticed Martin has some social challenges. I hope he and Alejandro weren’t too much of a handful at dinner.” The grandfather responded, “Oh, really? Funny. After your family left the restaurant, I said to Alejandro, ‘Did you see how Martin always extends his hand and introduces himself? You should learn to do that’.”

I was tickled pink.

Not that everything Nicaraguan was perfect. The day camp, with its week-to-week enrollment, had regular turnover, and the second week Martin experienced some pretty intense bullying. I witnessed it myself: At drop-off one morning, at the local park, Martin said hello to a group of five kids. One by one, those kids picked up their backpacks and moved to another area, without acknowledging Martin. Appearing confused, Martin followed them and said hello again. The oldest boy, without looking at Martin, said, “I see something really interesting over there. It’s a tree. I’m going to see the tree,” and left. The other kids promptly followed. Martin, realizing he’d been rejected, climbed onto a swing, alone. When two pick-ups arrived to shuttle the kids to the camp, these kids piled into one truck’s bed—safety advocates, I know! but when in Rome . . .—then blocked Martin from getting in, telling him that all the spots were reserved for their friends. I was standing nearby, so I said, “I don’t think you can reserve the spots. Let Martin sit.” A girl in the bullying group, about seven years old, looked me directly in the eye and said, “No, we can do whatever we want.” (I was taken aback. I don’t know any child who would speak that way to an adult, much less an adult who is a stranger to her! This girl, dear readers, was simply a brat.) I contacted the camp directors the same morning, and fortunately, they jumped on the situation immediately. By Friday afternoon, Martin was calling the bullying group’s ringleader “a kid who wasn’t kind to me at the beginning of the week but then got nicer.”

Taekwondo didn’t work out so well, either. Martin does taekwondo in the States. It’s a gentle program, with three or four instructors for the 45-minute classes and a series of ten belts, which are earned for learning sequences of kicks and punches. Taekwondo in Nicaragua, at the only dojang in town, was serious business: two-hour classes, one master for more than twenty students, four belts awarded at the master’s discretion, and sparring for everyone. Martin couldn’t follow and shied from kicking and being kicked; he’s not ready to spar. The master didn’t seem to understand when I explained Martin’s challenges and often seemed annoyed or frustrated with Martin. Halfway through the summer, when Martin asked if he could “maybe stop doing taekwondo until we get home,” I agreed.

Fortunately, isolated bullying and advanced taekwondo didn’t ruin an amazing summer, or the perception that our Nicaraguan community was rooting for Martin’s success. In the States, I have that perception from the autism-recovery community—but not much more widely.

Martin didn’t accept the offer for surf lessons, I should mention. He says he’ll try surfing next summer. Because we’re going back to Nicaragua next summer. Was there any doubt?

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.

Actualización II de Nicaragua: NicarComidaYAgua

Feeding Martin in Nicaragua is both more and less challenging than in the States.

To be sure, Nicaraguans love their packaged foods. Chips, crackers, cereals. Breads. Whatever forms of snacks.

They also love their fresh food. Fruits, vegetables. Fish and shrimp and octopi pulled from the ocean and eaten the same day. (I hate that Martin eats octopi.) By now we’ve been able to locate the stands and trucks with the produce we want. Samara has a favorite fish monger and a carnecería for occasional chicken. Virtually nothing is organic, except some newfangled greens and the occasional imported quinoa. I am comforted by the fact that the food is grown locally, where Nicaragua’s stricter stance (than the U.S.) on genetically modified crops also reduces the presence of especially worrisome contaminants like glyphosate.

Martin’s breakfast is usually grain-free pancakes (say, plantains and peanut butter), or fritters, or eggs with vegetables, plus fruit. Dinner is rice and beans, or coconut-crusted chicken nuggets with vegetables, or quinoa pilaf, or peanut-butter stir-fry, or maybe ceviche. (Samara’s ceviche skills are said to be outstanding.)

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A Nicaraguan breakfast of plantain-and-peanut-butter fritters plus apple. Did you know apples can be grown in Central America? Neither did I.

Weekdays, Martin eats lunch at his camp. That development—eating with the other kids, and mostly what they eat—has been huge for Martin, who’s wanted all year to buy lunch at his school back home, which, of course, would be inconceivable: Have you seen U.S. school lunches? Here, at the camp, lunches are prepared fresh from organic ingredients, many grown on site, with focus on health. I met in advance with one of the camp directors and asked that they respect Martin’s dairy and beef allergies, and that he not be permitted to eat any gluten. No problem, they said. The directors reported that, for the first week, Martin had “lunch worries” and needed to be persuaded each day, anew, that in fact he would be fed. At first, he ate tentatively, mostly Nicaragua’s famous rice-and-beans dish, gallo pinto, or even arroz unadorned.

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The aftermath of Martin’s octopus, rice, and vegetables on the beach.

After the tentative first steps, Martin started taking advantage of everything offered. I mean, everything!, and that’s brought some slip-ups. Even though I pack healthy snacks, he wants the snacks the camp keeps on hand for all kids, which include popcorn, commercial yucca and plantain chips (fried in who knows what sort of refined vegetable oil), French fries, popsicles with food colorings and refined sugar. I don’t like the snacks aspect but am resisting the urge to make the camp pull back; eating at camp, plus the wide availability of fresh seafood and vegetables in Nicaraguan restaurants (not much pizza or pasta getting in the way), seems to be helping to reduce Martin’s food-related anxiety. I hear less, “Can I eat this? Can I eat that?” and more, “Hey, do they have octopus? How about rice?”

We are, however, in something of a popsicle crisis. Now that Martin has tasted a frozen refined-sugar stick, my homemade frozen-fruit popsicles just aren’t cutting it anymore.

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This is a “fancy” breakfast, like we have when guests are eating with us: pancakes and potatoes cooked with shredded vegetables.

The overall picture is that Martin has been eating 93.6% well, and 6.4% sugar and junk food. When I say sugar, I mean those aforementioned popsicles but also potatoes, rice (which also brings arsenic), and fruit. The fruit includes a daily smoothie from our favorite smoothie stand. Martin selects the three fruits he wants (usually pineapple, mango, and lemon), while from behind him I mouth “¡y aguacate!” to the smoothie-maker so that he’ll throw in some avocado, too. Martin professes not to like avocado, so I have to get creative, like sneaking it into a smoothie.

A few weeks ago, I discussed the situation with Martin’s doctor back home. Too much sugar, I confessed. A whole lot of fruit. Smoothies every day.

“You mean fresh, mineral-rich local fruit?” she asked.

“Some of it directly from the fields,” I replied.

“I think he’ll survive.”

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Another breakfast, this time plantain-and-egg pancakes with pineapple and raw energy bars that I made from almonds, dates, limes, and shredded coconut.