Friday, September 28, 2012

When Life Takes a Sledgehammer and Slams you in the Gut...

There's not much you can do but roll over and try to protect your innards from another swing. No lemonade involved.

I have a 5 year-old son. He's always been a sort of difficult child. Very quick to learn in some areas, very slow to learn in others. Give him a lever and he could totally move mountains, but for some reason he has spent most of his life talking in quotes from movies. Communication is not his forte. Nor is being told "no" about anything he'd set his mind on. But for a long time my husband and I just thought he was slower, but not abnormally so.We assumed that at some point he would get better on his own, that he just needed time.

Perhaps we were foolish. But we were still young parents and we didn't know any better.

Earlier this year our pediatrician told us that he believes our son has Asperger's Syndrome and ADHD. (The two often go hand in hand in young children.) We had him evaluated by our local Handicapped Children's Association and their assessment was that it is highly likely he places on the Autism spectrum (Asperger's is at the high functioning end of the spectrum). We haven't had a chance to see a specialist who can give a proper diagnosis yet, they are hard to get in with it seems. But because of the HCA assessment our school system placed our son in a special needs class when he started school this year.

So we have had to come to term with the fact that we have a child with special needs, not a child who is just going through a difficult phase or who is slow in some areas. And we have to accept that he will always have special needs. You can't treat Asperger's away. You can learn to cope with it, often with therapy, you can get certain drugs to help with some aspects of it, but you can't make it go away. It's a part of you. It's a part of our son.

We've learned a lot about how to relate to him better in the past several months. We've learned that touch, such as stroking the sides of his face, can help calm him down when he gets overwrought. He is extremely sensitive to touch and so, conversely, to him a simple smack on the hand is agony. We've learned to be more careful. We've learned that routine is really important and that public places where there are lots of people he doesn't know around are difficult for him to handle. We've learned how better to communicate with him on his own terms, often using what seems like his own personal code.

But as much as we've learned most days are still filled with strife. Everything tends to be a battle with him. We have to struggle with him to get him up in the morning for school, struggle with him to get dressed, struggle with him to get on the bus without flipping out because it's a small bus and not a big bus. Then several hours later we have to struggle with him to get off the bus and come home, we have to struggle with him to settle down and stop asking for impossible things about every five minutes (those are the tough ones, when he asks for something that I literally cannot give him), struggle with him to eat dinner, struggle with him to go to bed. And then it begins over again the next day.

It's taken a lot of adjustment. Not just for myself and my husband, but also from his two sisters. In one sense nothing has really changed. Our son has always had these special needs, we just never realized it. He's the same boy he's always been. In another sense everything has changed. Or at least it feels that way. It feels like we're leading an entirely different life than we were at the beginning of the year. I feel like a different person.

And that's why I've been gone from the blog for so long. To be honest, I've felt incapable of writing anything for months now. Words just don't seem to flow together in my head the way they used to. But I've had enough. I'm going to break out of this rut. I'm not going to let my daily stress levels decide whether or not I can write anymore. You should be seeing me around here more often, but not too often. I have so much fiction writing to catch up on.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

What are Stories for?

I've been giving some serious thought lately to the question of what stories are truly for. Stories have been a part of human culture since the very beginning. From Gilgamesh to the Iliad, from King Arthur to The Lord of the Rings, we've always told each other stories. And the stories we tell can survive centuries and even millennia. The Trojan Horse, the Knights of the Round Table, these things, passed on in story, have become part of humanity's shared cultural consciousness. They mean more to us than science or history. Much more than entertainment.

There is no doubt that reading stories has a positive effect on our brains. It increases our vocabulary and makes us smarter in many ways. Reading stories also provides an important diversion for our intellect. It's essentially R & R for our brains. And yet, I doubt that these are the reasons that stories have resonated so strongly with the human experience for thousands of years. Probably that stuff is just the icing on the cake, a positive side effect. After all, stories aren't the only way to relax your brain and reading isn't the only way we learn. No, something tells me that the real reason we love stories goes deeper than that.

But there is one thing that stories can help us do like nothing else can. They exercise our imagination. Stories can take us out of ourselves. They let us forget who we are and where we are, just for a while, so that we can experience places and situations that we never could in real life. They let us take risks without being at risk. But most importantly they let us experience what it's like to walk in the shoes of another person, to see things from his or her point of view, to think and feel like another person.
The ability to imagine and thus to empathize is a very important aspect of human nature. But most people seem to underestimate the crucial role that the imagination plays in the act of empathy.

Because it isn't easy to look at the world from someone else's shoes. It's far easier to look at someone's situation from our own shoes and condemn them for not doing what we would have done or not thinking the way we do. Imagination can help us to empathize because a healthy imagination really can see things from another point of view. And stories let us practice this.

This is, I believe, why stories are so integral to the human experience. They are a key part of the process that allows humans to relate to each other in a constructive way and they help us to recognize that there is more to this world than ourselves. They get us out of our own heads in a healthy and risk free way.

That's why it's so important for us to continue always to tell stories and why it's a very noble calling to be a storyteller.