Monday, July 29, 2013

Yellowstone Vacation – From Fargo to Billings

The vast state of North Dakota is mostly flat and the highway straight with a paucity of traffic. For a Midwesterner who is used to looking mostly at cornfields in our rural areas, there was something mesmerizing in the landscape of hayfields, cows, and nothingness.

And so it was throughout the morning of our second day on the road.

But things got more interesting when we reached the western end of the state. We were running ahead of schedule, so when we saw the sign for the Painted Canyon at Theodore Roosevelt National Park, we made the turnoff and checked it out.

We discovered our first real look of the natural beauty of the western states at this national park that I was previously unfamiliar with.

Kai seemed to enjoy the sight, too.

And he enjoyed the displays in the visitor center as well, many which were hands on.

Afterward, we drove around and saw a bit more of the park.

We stopped to look at the prairie dogs.

But Kai preferred play around by looking at his grandfather instead.

Despite the unexpected visit to the national park, we still made it to our motel in time to enjoy the pool and hot tub.

And a scrumptious dinner at an Italian restaurant capped out second fine day.

We’ve had two good days. But the challenge begins next.

We’re going to Yellowstone tomorrow. And that means more time outside the car, walking around, seeing the sights, and less time watching videos in the back seat.

Will it be a battle?

I’ll have to try to remember to keep my objective.

We will have fun.

Next: Yellowstone Vacation – The Challenges Begin

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Yellowstone Vacation – We’re Off

I had a long day of driving planned for the first day of our road trip to Yellowstone – we had to get all the way to Fargo, ND – and wanted to get off to a relatively early start. Kai did, too.

I had told him that if we got to the motel too late, we wouldn’t be able to use the swimming pool, which is always one of his most anticipated activities on every vacation.

“Dad, you wake me up early. I don’t want to be late.”

Of course, he was up bright and early all on his own, eager to get going.

“Let’s skip breakfast. And let’s go to a drive-thru and eat lunch in the car.”

I told him that we had time to eat breakfast, and wanted to take a short break for lunch so we didn’t need to eat in the car.

Usually when we are on the road, Kai wants to stop often, to use the bathroom, he says. But I’ve long suspected that it’s just an excuse to buy snacks at the quick marts at the gas stations. And I believe I was proven right, as this time he did not ask to stop once with the threat of “no pool” hanging over him if we were late.

And so we had a pretty uneventful first day on the road.

Kai was very content watching videos in the car, something we try to limit at home, but looks forward to while on the road. I somewhat try to limit the hours of video in the car, but having a happy kid in the car while I’m driving often takes precedent.

We arrived early enough at the motel to use the pool, much to Kai’s delight.

And then went to dinner. Now who would have guessed that we would find a fun spot for dinner in a place like Fargo? We went to a place called Space Aliens Grill & Bar. Think of it as a Chuck E. Cheese’s with an outer space theme.

Kai had a blast playing in the arcade. Like playing ski ball with his grandfather.

And other fun games like Fruit Ninjas.

So, after more than 600 miles, we are a little tired, but not much worse for the wear. We are off to about as good a start as we could have hoped.

I am actually having fun on my vacation.

Next: Yellowstone Vacation – From Fargo to Billings

Friday, July 26, 2013

My Dream Vacation; I’m Dreading It

It won’t be too long now before we embark on our road trip. We will be driving out west to visit Yellowstone and other national parks.

When I was a kid, my dad drove us all out to Yellowstone, and it has long been the destination that I most wanted to see again with my own family. My wife is from Japan, and she has not seen any of the vast, beautiful splendors of our Rocky Mountain states. So I have been especially excited to show her and her dad one of my favorite parts of our country.

I also want to share the experience with my son, to show him what real mountains look like, and see his reaction the first time he sees a geyser erupt.

I dream of it being the BEST VACATION WE HAVE EVER HAD.

But, big dreams bring the possibility of big disappointment. And I’m getting very anxious about things not going well.

It is an ambitious trip, as we’ll be putting in many hours in the car to arrive at Yellowstone by our third day. It will be the farthest we will have driven together.

But the long-distance travel is the least of my concerns. Kai actually does pretty well on these long car rides. But there will be other challenges on this trip.

In past vacations, Kai has loved going to the beach. But there are no beaches in the Dakotas or Wyoming.

In past vacations, we often took breaks in the middle of the day, going back to our motel room to relax. On this vacation, we will stay at a different motel every night, thus not having a set place for respite.

I have made reservations for every night of our trip. Several places will not have a television. Or wifi. Or a swimming pool. Basically all the things that keep my son happy on trips like this.

When I told Kai that we would not have internet access some nights, he groaned in agony.

But then I made a PowerPoint deck to show Kai our day-by-day schedule.

On each page, I inserted a map of where we would travel that day. I showed a picture of the lodge or motel we would stay. I described the main activities we would do. And I wrote about things that could potentially cause him to get upset. Things like…

“The drive may be slow as there will be a lot of cars; people may stop to see wild animals on or near the road – that is okay because we want to see them, too, and we are not in a hurry to get anywhere”


“We will make lots of stops, and get out of the car often to look at the scenery and take pictures. We will walk around a lot to see the hot springs and other interesting sights. Some of the hot springs may smell like sulfur.”

Kai loved the “story” as he called it. And he helped with ideas. He wanted me to insert a wifi icon for the days where we would stay at a motel that had internet access, and a picture of the swimming pool for those places that have one.

And he wanted to put in a picture of the Sulfur character from his Basher Elements book for the days when we would be visiting smelly hot springs and geysers.

So, I’ve tried to prepare him for the trip as best I could, and set his expectations for things that may occur.

Now I need to set my own expectations.

“Kai may get impatient when we are driving slowly to look at animals. I will stay calm and remain patient with him.”

“Kai may not want to hike to see the great view of Jenny Lake from Inspiration Point. I will encourage him, but not get angry if we don’t get to see everything I want to see.”

“I expect that not everything will go according to plan, and will stay flexible and adjust the schedule as needed instead of trying to cram everything in.”

Okay, expectations set.

Now I have to keep remembering that a vacation is about having fun. I hope I remember!

Next: Yellowstone Vacation – We’re Off

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Jiji Arrives!

Kai’s grandfather from Japan arrived over the weekend. Kai has been looking forward to Jiji’s visit.

“Don’t forget to order TV Japan (on our cable system),” he’s been reminding us for the past week.

After we picked his grandfather up at the airport, Kai chatted with him the whole way back home. Of course it was mostly a one-way conversation, as Kai doesn’t like to answer questions. But Kai prattled on about the dvd player and showed Jiji the funny parts of the movie he was watching.

By coincidence, it was his grandfather’s birthday. Kai decorated a cake for him.

And we had a little celebration after dinner.

Kai has big plans for all the things he wants to do with his grandfather while he is here. I hope Jiji is ready!

Friday, July 19, 2013

Summer School and Medication

My son had a long stretch of generally very good behavior at school. His major incidents were way down, and he had achieved a Safe Month in April and made it to Level 4 in May. It has been months since he’s come home with a chewed-to-shreds shirt.

This summer, he transitioned to a new teacher, something that we thought would be a big adjustment for him. After all, any type of change is difficult for most kids with autism, and Kai had had the same wonderful teacher for the past two years, in second and third grade. From what we could tell, Ms. Z had been extremely supportive of Kai. How would he react to a new teacher, who was also new to the school?

Summer school itself is a bit of an adjustment, as the schedule changes from the regular school year, and there is less structure. Half of the day is devoted to academics, while the other half is full of camp-like recreational activities.

In the summer following his kindergarten and first grade years, Kai seemed to have trouble with the looser framework of summer school. But he did much better last summer, and even with a new teacher this summer, he has been doing quite well.

His scores on his daily point sheet were consistently high, he had no major incidents, and he was in a great mood every day.

A few weeks ago, we consulted with Kai’s doctor about cutting back on risperidone, the medication that he has been taking on a small dose for over a year.

Risperidone is sometimes prescribed for kids with autism to reduce irritability and anger. It is said to work by calming down activity in the brain by blocking the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine. The thought is that too much of those neurotransmitters may lead to tantrums, fighting, and trying to hurt themselves.

We wondered if Kai would still be able to keep his anger under control without the drugs. Perhaps he had matured and learned to control his feelings well enough to do without the drug, which has a side effect of weight gain.

We started out by cutting the dosage in half. After one week, when there did not appear to be any negative consequences, the doctor agreed that we could stop the medication completely.

After a week off of the drug, Kai had his first relatively bad day at school. Was it a coincidence, or a direct result of stopping the medication?

This week Kai also started having a harder time sleeping through the night. He has always had trouble sleeping, but in the past year he has been better able to go back to sleep on his own. But in the past week, he has resumed calling for me in the middle of the night, complaining that he cannot sleep.

Yesterday, on his last full day of summer school, he had his first major incident of the summer. The school recently introduced the practice of saying The Pledge of Allegiance each morning. For a reason we don’t understand, Kai did not want to say the Pledge. He was asked to take a timeout, and during that time he hit and pinched one of the classroom staff.

Today, when the school went on a field trip to the beach, he had difficulty following directions to quit throwing water balloons at people when the balloon toss game had ended. He was given a time out, and responded by throwing dirt and grass at the staff in anger.

And so, it looks like maybe we should put Kai back on the medication.

We don’t like its side effects. But if was helping him control his anger as appears to be the case, then that is something that we will just have to deal with. We need to get back the boy who didn't have a major incident all summer.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The Contrast of Two Dogs

Last week, we sat an old bulldog.

Edoten was not as affectionate as many dogs that have stayed with us. He rarely played. He did not like going for walks.

Mostly he just laid around.

But, you could still tell that he enjoyed being with us.

And we loved having him with us. He was a calm, stately old fellow.

This week we are sitting a Lab.

Cookie is only two years old. In many ways, she is still like a puppy.

She has high energy. She is constantly in motion. She rarely naps.

She barks.


Make that very loudly.

She is very sensitive to sounds. One noise from anywhere and she is barking and making our whole house shake.

When we take her for a walk, it is all we can do to keep her in check. Particularly when another dog is near. Cookie is very strong, and even when we tightly hold onto her leash with two hands and pull with all our strength, it feels like she might drag us to wherever she wants to go.

This past weekend, we took her to a dog-friendly beach. If we had thought it through ahead of time, I would have worn my beach gear. Because it was all I could do to keep Cookie from dragging me into the lake at times.

Kai did not care that his clothing got wet. He splashed right into the water with Cookie.

At night, when we want to go to sleep, she barks that extra loud bark as if to say that she wants to stay up and keep playing.

And in the middle of the night, when Kai gets out of bed, she starts barking again. The first night, I went out into the hallway and Kai was laughing.

“Dad, Cookie is barking!” he said joyously.

Yes, Kai, I hear her, I replied, not so joyously. I scolded him that you have to be very quiet if you wake up in the middle of the night. And no talking or she’ll bark more!

Until that moment, I did not realize how much I missed Edoten.

Kai said he was having trouble sleeping so I stayed with him and lay down in the extra bed in his room.

And as I lay there, I realized that my son is a lot more like Cookie than he is like Edoten.

Of all the dogs we have had, Cookie has probably been our most challenging. And Kai is probably more challenging than most kids. He is full of energy, enthusiastic, loud, always tugging us in directions we don’t want to go.

And while I’m not sure that I would want a dog like Cookie to stay with us more than a couple weeks, a boy like Kai, with all of his challenges, is exactly the kind of kid I want.

I’ll take his big ball of rambunctious energy.

It comes with his big smile, and all of his love.

And I would not have it any other way.

Monday, July 15, 2013

18 Holes

We hadn’t been miniature golfing at any of our local courses all year. But we finally made our way over to one of our favorite mini golf courses yesterday.

After we started playing, beginning on the third hole, Kai wanted his picture taken on every hole.

"Dad, take a picture!" he kept saying.

And so I did.

















And then, when we were done, he wanted to go back and get his picture taken at the first two holes.



My wife and I got tired as it was a hot day and there was very little shade there. But Kia stayed enthusiastic throughout, and, if anything, got more and more into the pictures as we went along.

And now we have 18 pictures to remember our fun day.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Summer Fun Brings Lots of Laughs

We did a couple of my son’s favorite summer activities over the weekend.

On Saturday morning we headed over to our community’s beach for the first time this year. I have never been a particularly big beach person – I could easily make do without the mess of the sand and the cold water. But, Kai loves it, so we go often.

Even though it is July, the Lake Michigan water temperature is frigid. However, Kai’s penguin-like adaptability to the cold water remains remarkable, as he seemed to have no problem splashing right in. But a few seconds in the water was enough for my wife, who remained ensconced in her beach chair the remainder of the time.

Someone had to get in the water with Kai, though. And let’s see, who does that leave?

Somehow my body got used to the cold water. Or perhaps my body had just gotten numb.

We brought along a water gun and had a lot of fun playing with it.

Kai smiled and laughed a lot as he sprayed me with the cold water.

And tracked me down.

And then when I had my turn soaking him.

We picnicked on the beach before heading home.

You would think that after a day at the beach, that would have satiated his desire to get wet. But after we got home we played with water balloons in the backyard.

Kai’s exuberance, accompanied by the enthusiasm in his voice and near-constant laughter is one of his greatest qualities. And nothing brings that out like a day of summer water fun.

And so I’ll take the sand sticking to my body and getting in the car.

Because along with it comes a very happy child.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Our 4th of July

Kai has wanted to go to the public swimming pool in our neighborhood since it opened for the season about a month ago. But it has been unseasonably cool and rainy the whole time. So when we had our first warm day yesterday, Kai was insistent that we go.

I thought we could go miniature golfing instead and save the pool for the weekend when it would really heat up, but Kai did not like that idea one bit.

So we went to the pool and stayed for a good couple of hours. Funny how a “relaxing” time at the pool can leave you feeling exhausted. Well, not so much for Kai. But my wife and I were drained.

We sandwiched our trip to the pool around walks with the dogs

and cooking out with hot dogs for lunch and chicken for dinner.

Then we mustered up some energy to drive over to our town’s Fourth of July fireworks.

We found a good spot to park our car, which was conveniently a good place to view the fireworks. So, we set up our chairs and waited.

Kai occupied himself with the iPad. Though he popped up every two minutes to ask me what time it was and how much longer it would be until the fireworks started.

As the sun was setting, a woman who was sitting next to us asked her group if anyone was looking at the beautiful sunset.

“I am!” Kai answered, which was funny for a couple of reasons. The first is that his head was still staring down at his iPad when he responded, a fact that the woman noticed and jokingly commented on.

Besides that, though, I thought it was funny because when we try to ask Kai questions when he is on his iPad, it is like pulling teeth to get him to respond. And here he was piping up to answer a question that wasn’t even asked of him.

Anyway, after that, Kai asked me every 30 seconds to take a picture of the sunset. Here’s one of the pictures.

The fireworks were quite nice. We had somewhat serendipitously found one of the best places to view them as we got to see them quite close.

Kai really enjoyed them, as he applauded almost throughout.

After we got home, we did sparklers in the back yard.

And that wrapped up another great holiday.

I had to go to work today. This morning I still felt exhausted, as I took a nap on the train into downtown.

But besides feeling tired, I mostly felt good. Kai has been doing really well lately, almost consistently in a good mood and not angering much at all. His joy and exuberance on this day is enough to bring a smile to my face and a spring to my step.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Busy Weekend

But before we get to our weekend activities, since sports championships are rare in our city, here’s a picture of Kai hoisting the Stanley Cup, at least, the one he made in summer school on Friday.

The weekend always feels busier when we have dogs to take care of. And this weekend, we had three active, noisy dogs staying with us, plus we went over to someone else’s house to take two other dogs walking. So, we had a lot of walking to do.

One particularly nice thing was that Kai did not complain about having to walk so much. In fact, he looked forward to the walks. On Sunday, when Kai was busy with a workout with his swim instructor, my wife thought about going for a walk without him. But since he had let us know how much he wanted to see Georgie and Mancha, we decided to wait for him.

I was glad we had waited as he really enjoyed the walk, and we got to see a different neighborhood than our own, one that had some interesting sights.

Aside from taking care of the dogs, we were able to make a quick trip up over the Wisconsin border on Saturday for our annual outing to pick strawberries.

Usually it is extremely hot and muggy, and while we enjoy picking one basket of berries, we endure the heat to pick another one just to make our drive feel worthwhile.

But this was an usually cool weekend, and all the rain we had had made for a bumper crop this year. And it made for pleasant conditions to pick berries.

And eat berries.

Technically, we probably are not supposed to eat the berries in the field. But I think the owners know that is part of the fun of the pick-your-own experience and account for that in their pricing.

Anyway, Kai had a nice time. I was very happy that he did not seem anxious about the impending rain, and never complained once even when it started drizzling. I don’t know why he was so calm, as usually any hint of rain brings on tons of anxiety.

The next day, we went for a family bike ride. We had not gone at all this year, so it has been a long time since Kai went riding with us. And that brought out some anxiety.

He complained through much of the first mile.

But with a steady stream of encouragement, and just feeling comfortable being back on the bicycle, he gradually got less cranky and more happy.

And by the time we were done, he was looking forward to going riding again.

And so it was a busy weekend. And a good weekend.

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