Friday, July 1, 2016

Kai’s 4th of July Video

Kai’s obsessions the past few months have been plushies and videos; specifically making videos with his plushies and then posting them onto YouTube.

While most kids start to get into plushies when they are toddlers, Kai never showed much interest in them until this year. But like with most things he takes an interest in, his interest quickly became an obsession. Mostly with the money he’s been earning for his allowance (for doing assorted simple chores), he’s assembled a fairly vast collection of plushies.

For a much longer time, he’s enjoyed watching various silly videos on YouTube. But recently he’s started to make his own videos that have been partially inspired by the videos he watches.

He asked that his own videos be posted on YouTube. I think he has aspirations of being a YouTube star with a million views. I’m not even sure I like the idea of him making these videos let alone having them viewed by millions of strangers.

With a bit of trepidation, my wife and I have been his cameramen and helped him make the videos. I can rationalize it as a modern form of imaginative play of sorts. But I insisted that the videos be loaded as Restricted, not Public (which means that only the people that have been provided the URL or link can view the video).

I won’t be sharing most of the videos, but he created one specifically for the Fourth of July that is not too long and will give you a small taste of what he’s been up to. (You may want to skip ahead to the 4:30 mark for the exciting part).

By the way, we do not permit him to drink caffeinated soft drinks (and rarely any soda of any kind), but after we were done filming and when I went to get the hose to clean up, he took several big swigs from the leftover Diet Coke. That night, he woke us up a few times complaining that he could not sleep. No more Diet Coke for this guy!

Hope you have a very happy Fourth of July!

Monday, June 27, 2016

Joy at the Pool Not Just From a Jump in the Water

When we reconnected with old friends last month, Kai and Timothy decided that they wanted to get together for playdates. And their moms have arranged just that.

A week ago Friday, Kai went over to Timothy’s house and had a great time. This past Friday Timothy came over to our house.

They played on the Wii and with plushies, and then my wife took them over to our neighborhood swimming pool.

At this pool, kids have to take a swim test on their first visit to show whether they can be allowed into the deep area of the pool. Kai was familiar with the test from previous summers and he passed easily. Timothy had a harder time following the lifeguard’s instructions and kept putting his feet down and touching the bottom instead of swimming.

Kai tried to explain to the lifeguard. “He has autism,” he said, in trying to get the lifeguard to give his friend more time. Eventually Timothy did pass the test and they were able to play together on the deep side.

My wife reported that while they didn’t exactly play with each other the way typical kids do, Kai did a nice job of trying to engage with Timothy, often calling out to him and encouraging him to come over to him. Kai’s favorite thing was doing cannonballs into the pool with his friend.

Kids with autism often struggle with taking the perspective of someone else or thinking of others. But at the pool, my wife said that Kai showed concern for Timothy’s older brother Benjamin, who also has autism. When Kai and Timothy went to another part of the pool to go down a slide, Kai asked his mother to stay with Benjamin in the deep area to make sure he would be okay.

The boys had a great time splashing, sliding, swimming.

But for us parents, our greatest pleasure came from the little things that happened there, the signs of progress we saw with Kai. He communicated, he engaged, and he thought of others.

And that brings us as much joy as a well executed cannonball.

Hope you are off to a good summer, too!

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Picking Strawberries - Then and Now

I have been taking my wife and Kai to the pick-your-own strawberry farm in Wisconsin for about 9 or 10 years now. But the tradition had its origins long before that.

When I was 12, the same age that Kai is now, my parents took my sister and I to the very same farm in Wisconsin. Here's photo of me picking strawberries, with my dad and sister in the background.

It looks like we picked a lot of berries that day. The following photo shows me with my mom, grandmother, aunt, and sister.

The thing that strikes me the most about the above photo was that it looks like it was a very cool day based on how we were dressed. In all the times I've gone with Kai, it has almost always been scorching hot.

And today was to be no different - a 90 degree day was forecasted - so we decided to go early in the morning to beat the heat.

The berries were small but boy were they sweet! This year might be among the best in terms of the tastiness of the fruit.

A good time was had by all!

Saturday, June 4, 2016

First Bat Mitzvah

Kai and I experienced our first Bat Mitzvah last night.

A Bar Mitzvah (for boys) or Bat Mitzvah (for girls) is a traditional religious ceremony that usually marks a coming-of-age when Jewish kids turn 13. Kai’s aunt never had a Bat Mitzvah when she was 13, and decided that she wanted to do that now.

I learned that the participant in the Bat Mitzvah must go through months of preparation. For nine months, Karolyn and her fellow women got together every week to learn Hebrew and study with the Cantor.

Last night was the culmination of their studies.

Our original plan was that my wife would attend the Shabbot service at the temple where the B’not Mitvah (plural) would take place, while I would stay home with Kai. There was no way that he would sit through the service, we thought, which we understood could be long (at least 90 minutes) and quite boring to Kai, with many prayers in Hebrew. We didn’t want to risk that Kai would get loud and disrupt the ceremony.

We sent our regrets to Karolyn, and she said she understood. But reading between the lines of her email, I sensed disappointment that Kai would not be there.

I spoke with my wife about going with Kai and giving it a try.

And so the three of us ended up going. We thought it would be a good idea to go in separate cars in case I had to leave early with Kai. My wife rode with Kai’s grandmother, while I drove over there with Kai.

In the car I wanted to set proper expectations. It will be a new experience for us, I said, so let’s find out what it will be like. Aunt Karolyn will be so happy to see him, and this is a big occasion for her so he has to be very respectful. The ceremony will be long, and he cannot talk during it. Much of it will be in Hebrew, so it may be boring, but that’s okay, we will be experiencing something new.

He asked how many times Karolyn would have a Bat Mitzvah, though he really already knew that this was a one-time event. His question was a nod to the fact that just a few weeks ago, he and I had to miss Karolyn’s son’s college graduation party because Kai had had a terrible day at school and had to make up a lot of schoolwork that evening. I had scolded him then: “Do you know how many times Rudy will graduate from college? Once! And we’re missing the celebration.”

He seemed to understand that this too was a big occasion, maybe even bigger, and he shouldn’t mess it up.

At the temple, we met our extended family who were already there. Many came in from out of town for the event.

Kai and I found seats in the back row, again as contingency for having to make a quick exit.

It was a traditional Friday night Shabbat service with the B’not Mitzvah added on. Kai took great interest in the prayer book, and tried to follow along with each prayer and song. I was pleasantly surprised at how many songs the cantor sang, and it definitely helped to make things more interesting for Kai.

From time to time, the five women of the B’not Mitzvah would get up to speak, to either lead a prayer, give a speech, or later, to read from the Torah.

A couple different times Kai asked what time it was, but for the most part he did not seem restless. He sat quietly, paid attention to what was going on, and did not cause any disruption.

We were relieved, and very proud, that he handled things so well.

And his aunt was very happy that he had come!

As I said at the top, a Bat Mitzvah is traditionally a coming of age ceremony. In some ways, this one was a coming of age of sorts for Kai.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Catching Up with Friends, and RPM

We saw friends over the weekend that we hadn't seen in over two years. They have two boys on the autism spectrum.

The younger child is like Kai in many ways. We met Timothy and his parents when our mutual ABA therapist at that time thought that he and Kai would be compatible for play dates. That was back when they were in preschool. Now, though it has been a long time since they last saw each other, Kai and Timothy picked right up where they left off.

Kai has recently developed an interest (obsession) with plushies. Most kids are into plushies when they are what? toddlers? and are well past playing with them by the time they are Kai's age. But we're (somewhat) happy that Kai has an interest in something non-electronic, and that he is doing some imaginative play with the plushies (better late than never, I suppose).

Kai was thrilled when he saw Timothy's room and saw that Timothy had even more plushies than he did. According to Kai, some of the plushies were rare, saying that Timothy had one that was going for $100 on eBay. The two boys played with the plushies (with Timothy not minding sharing his with Kai), and talked about important things like Mario characters and posting videos to YouTube (another mutual interest). Kai enjoyed the visit immensely.

The older boy, Benjamin, is mostly non-verbal, capable only of saying a word here and there but mostly unable to express his thoughts. It is easy to think that someone like that is a loner, but Benjamin is a very social kid. If he doesn’t interact with others, it is mostly because we all don’t know how to interact with him, and not because it is his choice. He loves people, and we learned that he was really looking forward to seeing all of us and had been in a great mood all day in anticipation of our visit.

It was our first visit since our friends moved into their new house. Just after we arrived, Benjamin led us to his favorite spot, the large trampoline outside in the backyard. He loves jumping and can keep going for an hour non-stop, but his greatest pleasure is not jumping by himself; rather, he loves to jump with other people, and in this case, specifically, with me. It was a warm afternoon, and dressed in a collared shirt and jeans, I knew I’d get all sweaty if I jumped for long. So I jumped with Benjamin for about five minutes, and then his dad gave me a break and took my place before we all went inside to get the tour of the new house. But I could tell that Benjamin was disappointed that we didn't jump longer.

It was fun seeing the house, and it was nice to catch up on the kids. But perhaps more than anything, being with fellow autism parents, we felt the bond and understanding that stays strong despite the long interval since we were last together.

We were most eager to learn about the RPM program that they have been doing with Benjamin for about a year and a half. RPM stands for Rapid Prompting Method, and to describe it simply, it helps non-verbal individuals with autism communicate by prompting them to spell out words and sentences. In Benjamin’s case, they have a laminated sheet with the alphabet printed on it. Parents or school staff can ask Benjamin a question, and he will point to the letters on the sheet one at a time to spell out his thoughts. The Prompting is an important part of the method as questioning, prompting,and engaging is necessary to help keep him focused as otherwise he may not stay still or his attention may wander.

Benjamin cannot use the sheet spontaneously, but he has been able to answer questions posed to him.

His parents have learned that there is a lot going on in his mind that they never knew of before. They now get more insight after he gets upset as to the reasons why. They learned that he understands algebra when the school was still just teaching him basic arithmetic. And they found out that he is curious about girls, and wonders what a kiss would be like, but thinks that he will never find out because he has autism.

It is incredibly heartwarming that they have opened up communication with their son, and found out that he has all of these thoughts just like you and I do.

After dinner, it had cooled off a bit. I offered to Benjamin that we go back out on the trampoline. He was really happy!

This time, we bounced a good long time. Kai and Timothy came outside with a bunch of the plushies and joined us on the trampoline. Three kids, a dozen plushies, and me, bouncing bouncing bouncing.

Couldn't have been a better way to wrap up a very fine day.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Photos from Universal Orlando

I included some of the photos I took on my posts about our Florida vacation, but wasn't able to show you some of the best ones until now. These are the pictures that the Universal Orlando photographers took at many of the park's attractions. We ended up buying quite a few of those professional photos. They're not cheap, but for me the best souvenirs are the memories we made and these photos help to preserve some of the best ones.

This first picture was taken just before we rode on Escape from Gringotts, the fantastic Harry Potter attraction that we saw first at Universal Studios.

From that same photo, we also purchased a Gringotts ID for Kai. One of the things I like about these pictures are that they have the date printed right on them.

This next photo was taken during the Men in Black ride, where you ride around and shoot aliens. My wife commented on how serious I look and how competitive I always am. What's funny is that she actually won this one, scoring about double of the points of me and Kai combined. Kai just looks happy.

After buying a couple of photos already that first day, I wasn't planning to spend more money. But after Kai enjoyed the thrilling Revenge of the Mummy ride, I just had to buy this next photo.

Here's a closeup of the same picture. You can see Kai clutching Mom's arm, but with a big smile on his face. Meanwhile I look like I am hanging on for dear life. Ha!

The next day we went to Universal's Islands of Adventure park. The water rides were especially refreshing on a hot day when temperatures hit 90 degrees.

This next photo was taken just as we are dropping on the steep part of the Dudley Do-Right's Ripsaw Falls ride. I love Kai's expression - it's a mixture of happiness and terror as he's bracing for the big drop and big splash at the bottom.

The following photo might be my favorite. After we got off the Jurassic Park River Adventure, we went to look at the picture. The man operating the register looked at the photo and said to Kai, 'Oh oh, are you alright?' Take a look at the picture and you can understand why he asked.

By the way, Kai actually loved the ride!

On our last day in Orlando, we went to the Wet 'n Wild waterpark. This park will close after this year so we are among the last ones to experience it.

Kai loved all of the slides. The following photo was taken on our last ride of the day down his favorite one of all, Disco H2O.

Here are the three of us afterward:

Ah yes, great times and great memories!

The Drive Home

We made the long drive home over the past two days.

We had some rain in Florida, but otherwise the weather was nice and sunny the whole way back.

In Georgia, we stopped to get some local foods. We found a big store that had pecans, peach preserves, and vidalia onion dressing and got some of each. Kai spotted colorful bon bons and wanted to try them.

During much of the first day, Kai was happy watching movies in the car and going on Mom's iPhone. But as we kept running into bad traffic - I'm looking at you, Tennessee! - he started to get more and more agitated. We had reservations for the night in Nashville and the estimated time of arrival per our GPS kept getting pushed back. If we got there too late, we would not be able to use the swimming pool.

Between Chattanooga and Nashville, traffic stopped to a crawl. When we weren't stopped completely, I don't think we traveled faster than 5 mph. The lighted status signs indicated that the tie-up could extend for nearly 20 miles.

We decided to exit the road and go get some dinner. We would make productive use of the time and maybe the accident (or whatever was causing the big backup) could be cleared while we ate.

We found a Chinese buffet. It was about what you'd expect of a Chinese buffet in the middle of nowhere in Tennessee, but we all enjoyed it.

Once back in the car, though, we found that the traffic was still crawling.

Kai was extremely upset.

And of course, it was all my fault.

I tried to stay calm, which wasn't easy as I was almost as frustrated by the traffic as Kai was, and I was the one who had to drive through it while he could watch his movies.

I told Kai that we had such a nice vacation and that we shouldn't let one thing like not getting to use this last swimming pool affect us so much.

But once he gets this upset, there is no reasoning with him. He was mad and we would all have to suffer through it.

In my mind, I was calculating how much longer we could be in this mess - 5 mph for 20 miles could mean 4 hours in this nightmare. But about a half hour after we had gotten back on the road, we came to a construction zone. Three lanes merged down into one. Was this what caused the delay? Late on a Saturday night, there was no construction going on, and it didn't even look like the lanes needed to be closed.

But once we cleared that area, traffic started to move again.

We reached our hotel at 9:30PM. Perhaps we could still get in a swim.

The hotel was huge and we had trouble finding a parking spot. Then it was a long walk in to the front desk. We found out that the pool closed at 10:00PM.

We rushed up to our room, changed into our swimsuits, and went as quickly as we could to the pool. We had 3 minutes left before it closed. We jumped in, swam a lap or two, and that was it. But Kai was happy. I was relieved that we had made it in time. Now we could rest in peace.

"Hey Dad, the pool opens at 6:00 AM. We should come back in the morning so we can have more time to swim."

I really did not want to do that. If we were going to get up early, I wanted it so we could get on the road sooner, not to go to the pool again.

But it was our last day of vacation. And Kai would be really happy to go to the pool again.

So the next morning we got up before 6:00 and went to the pool for one last swim. Funny, no one else was there on an early Sunday morning.

It was actually refreshing to start the day that way, and the hot tub felt good.

It set us up for another day in the car.

The second day wasn't as bad as the first. The highway was congested near Indianapolis and through Chicago, but nothing like we saw in Tennessee.

We made it home around 5PM, exhausted but happy to be back home.

It was a good vacation. Certainly it wasn't always easy, but we did a lot of fun things and Kai really enjoyed it for the most part. Let's put this one in the win column.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

A Fun Day at Wet 'n Wild Waterpark

After waking up early the past two days so that we could get to the theme parks before it got too crowded, we slept in on our third morning in Orlando. This was our day to go to the Wet 'n Wild waterpark, and we didn't want to get there before the day heated up. So we enjoyed a great buffet breakfast at our hotel.

Our time at the waterpark was great. Although Kai enjoyed the two Universal theme parks, he thought of the waterpark as saving the best for last.

We went on every tube slide and enjoyed them all.

Later, we went out for our last dinner in Orlando before beginning our journey home the next morning. We toasted to a great vacation.

And enjoyed a good meal at a Mexican restaurant. My meal of sautéed shrimp scallops, and skirt steak, marinated in roasted chipotle tomato sauce, lime juice, and queso fresco was my favorite meal in Orlando.

Despite a few rocky moments, we had a great vacation. Universal Orlando exceeded expectations and we are very happy we made this trip.

Next, we begin the long drive back home.

Friday, April 1, 2016

A Mostly Good Day at Universal Islands of Adventure

After our great first day at Universal, we were all looking forward to Day 2.

Universal Orlando has two theme parks, plus a water park. Day 1 was spent at Universal Studios. On Day 2 we walked back over to Studios, then took the Hogwarts Express over to the other theme park, Islands of Adventure. (For those of you who are not Harry Potter fans, Hogwarts Express is the train that takes young wizards to the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry). Of course, to catch the train, we had to go to the secret platform 9 3/4.

The train ride was a cool experience... rather than seeing scenery of the park, they made it look like you were riding the train in Harry's world.

When we arrived at Islands of Adventure, we were in the Harry Potter area of that park. (Universal was smart to put Harry in both parks). There, we first went over to the Harry ride, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey.

While waiting for that ride, Kai got agitated with something in his eye. With most kids, something like this would not be a big deal but with Kai the little things become big deals. He got angry and loud. I took him over to the restroom to have him wash his face/eyes, but once agitated, he doesn't listen well and didn't follow my instructions to make a cup of water with his hands and dip his face in it. Eventually, whatever was irritating him did come out just from all the blinking, and we were able to go on the ride.

The ride itself was very thrilling, and scary for Kai. My wife and I liked all the effects, but were both a little nauseous afterward.

We were happy to sit down and have breakfast, go to a few shops, and then go to the Suess area where the rides are a lot gentler.

This theme park has three water rides and we saved them for later in the day when it would be hotter. And it did get hot. It was in the upper 80s by early afternoon.

First we rode Popeye & Bluto's Bilge-Rat Barges and got completely soaked.

After lunch we went down Dudley Do-Right's Ripsaw Falls and got completely soaked.

And we wrapped up by going on the Jurassic River Challenge and got completely soaked.

So we had a good day. But there were some difficult moments later in the day. With Kai, one thing tends to lead to other things. I don't remember all the particulars but he was angry about the limits of his iPad time, he was angry about school for some reason, he used inappropriate language, and then he was angry when we spoke to him about all that.

One more day in Orlando. Hoping that happy Kai will be more present than angry Kai.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

A Great Day at Universal Studios

We spent our first full day in Orlando at Universal Studios. It was our most enjoyable day on the vacation as Kai was happy all day.

We went to the park relatively early to go to the very popular Harry Potter ride, Escape from Gringotts. The wait was already over an hour long when we got there, but Kai was able to wait very patiently. It was probably good that we made that our first stop, as he was full of enthusiasm whereas he tends to get more cranky as he gets tired. Universal also does a good job in making the wait in line entertaining so the time passes relatively quickly.

The ride itself was great. It was thrilling, creative, and we all enjoyed it.

Afterward we walked around Diagon Alley, pausing to enjoy Butterbeer.

Universal did a fantastic job of recreating the world of Harry Potter. Here's a photo of the dragon on the top of Gringotts Bank breathing fire.

There was plenty of souvenirs for sale, of course. One of the more interesting was the wands; you could select wands of any of the characters from Harry Potter. The cool thing was that there were several places throughout the Harry Potter area of the park where you can use the wand to cast spells. Here Kai is casting a spell to make it rain from the umbrella that Mom is standing under.

There were many other areas of the park that we enjoyed. Next to Harry Potter, the Minions were probably the most popular part of park.

We stayed at the park until late afternoon, going on a wide variety of rides, and then we returned to the hotel to take a break and use the pool.

For dinner, we went to a burger sushi restaurant that featured burgushi, which is a bento box of a mini hamburger and sushi, along with edamame and sweet potato fries.

My wife and I enjoyed a blackened tuna nachos appetizer, and then had sashimi.

After dinner we returned to the park and rode Revenge of the Mummy, which turned out to be much scarier than Kai expected. It is an indoor roller coaster in a dark setting. As you ride, you're surrounded by huge fireballs, swarms of scarab beetles and an army of warrior mummies. This was my favorite ride in the park. Kai was terrified but he also enjoyed it. Afterward we gave him many kudos for riding his first real rollercoaster and handling it so well.

It was a really great day all around.

I only wish that every day could be like this.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

2016 Florida Vacation - On to Orlando

After two plus days with Mama Dell and Papa Earl, it was time to move on. We had breakfast with them and one final photo.

Our first destination was the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, home to Winter, the star of the Dolphin Tale movies. We had enjoyed seeing the film that told the true story of an injured dolphin who washed ashore in Florida and was rescued by the folks at Clearwater, and eventually fitted with a prosthetic tale that saved her life. We looked forward to seeing Winter in real life.

The drive to Clearwater was to take no more than two hours, but we again encountered very heavy traffic and it added nearly an hour to the trip. It seemed even longer than that as Kai was constantly obsessing over the predicted rainstorm. In his mind, a tornado was sure to come despite our telling him (over and over) that it was just a regular rainstorm.

When we got to the aquarium, the parking lot was full so we had to park at an auxiliary lot a couple miles away. We went to the first building that told the story of the movie and had props to help bring it to life.

After a quick lunch, we went to board the trolley that would take us to the aquarium. We went outside and found a line extending down the block. It took about a half hour to get on a trolley.

Once at the aquarium, we found an area that was a viewing area for Winter. The stands were crowded so we figured that there would be some type of show. After several minutes of waiting, I asked a worker if there was going to be a show and she indicated that a naturalist would come out and speak. After several more minutes of waiting, I asked another worker who indicated that there was no show; this was just a place to sit and watch dolphins. Which would have been fine except there were no dolphins swimming around and there was no sign of Winter.

We quickly went through the rest of the aquarium and got in the line to take the trolley back to where we parked the car.

We then got on the road and headed to Orlando. We had tickets for a 6PM show of Blue Man Group and I was stressing out that we would not make it. Between all the bad traffic earlier and the extra time catching the trolleys back and forth and waiting in lines, we weren't going to have much time to spare.

Traffic to Orlando was very heavy, which did not do much for my stress. I was preparing Kai that we might not make it in time for the start of the show, but that we would still get to see most of it. I was relieved when we pulled into the hotel shortly before 6:00, and we were able to hustle over to the Blue Man Group with a minute or two to spare.

The show was terrific! All I really knew about the show was that there would be guys with blue heads playing percussion, but it was really a lot more than that. The music was great and the show was very funny and entertaining. Kai loved it, too.

Afterward we had a good dinner at Hard Rock Cafe.

After a stressful day, we had enjoyed a fun evening and we were looking forward to three good days at Universal Orlando.

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