Did you survive Christmas? Did you manage to keep meltdowns to a minimum and behaviour levels acceptable? Were outbreaks of violence and arguments kept in check? And what about the kids? Did they behave too? Christmas can be a long two weeks when you have kids, and possibly longer when those kids have additional needs. We wind them up to bursting point in the run up to the 25th and then have two or three days of madness, as relatives descend or we invade other people’s homes. Little wonder that the pages of sites like Mumsnet are filled with tales of Christmas chaos. Exhausting doesn’t begin to cover it.
My own two week break actually became three. Following a minor surgical procedure (to my knee) I was required to miss part of the last week at work, under strict instructions to rest my leg. No driving, no excessive standing, no crawling on the floor looking for lost pieces of Lego under the sofa (and finding instead that lost remote control). It effectively meant that my Christmas holiday began on the Wednesday instead of the Friday.
I have never looked forward to three days more in my life. I would have an extra half a week, at home, without the kids (who were still at school) with orders to do nothing but sit on my arse. Even when the family was home, I would effectively be under doctors orders to be waited upon hand and foot (I took the liberty of bringing home a bell, in case my wife didn’t quite hear me when I needed assistance. Her suggestion of what I could do with it would have meant another trip to the hospital). I cannot describe the joy the thought of two days of inactivity brought to my heart. I also cannot find the words to describe the disappointment at what actually happened.
Right on cue, both boys decided to contract some nasty Winter virus that meant, you guessed it, they were also off all week, as was my wife. Bye bye relaxing week. Bye bye DVD box set, idle internet surfing and lots of reading. Hello, boys. To be fair to the boys, they had no chance of not getting ill. In B’s class alone, there were 23 kids off at one point. Also off was B’s TA, so I’m betting the school were grateful for my son’s absence. The small school was obliterated by Winter flu and Norovirus to the point where the carol concert and talent show were cancelled (this last one was a big relief as my eldest was planning a Gangnam Style dance performance. No amount of cajoling could talk him out of it). It was inevitable that they would end up ill. At least the worst of it was over by Christmas day.
None of which stops me feeling like I have been robbed of my three days off. They owe me. Instead of peace and quiet, I instead found myself unable to move whilst, all around me, ill children whined and moaned and coughed and sneezed their way through the week. My wife, forced to miss more time from work, battled against the odds to juggle everything and whilst I was the model patient (ahem), it was a very tiring time for her.
At least under normal circumstances I can go and hide for five minutes in a different room. A favourite place for doing this is what I call my ‘office’. Others call it my Man Den (“there’s not even a desk in your ‘office’” they will argue), my wife calls it a ‘Future downstairs loo”. Now though, I was trapped in a chair facing the television which ran recorded episodes of my kids’ favourite shows on a loop. I couldn’t even read a book, such were the noise levels generated by my offspring. It was a living hell and as the week reached its conclusion, I was climbing the walls and suffering serious cabin fever.
But not nearly as much as B was. As his week of illness progressed, his behaviour got increasingly worse. The screaming became more incessant, the mini-meltdowns more frequent and the argumentative, obstructive attitude more pronounced. All of us were under a constant barrage of impossible emotional outbursts. On more than one occasion I lost it and found myself shouting at him. More fool me. If there’s one sound worse than my son screaming at me it’s his extreme emotional reaction to being told off. More and more, I’m coming to realise how the relationships between everyone in my family are dependent on B’s moods and demeanour. Most of the time he’s perfectly fine and we tick along nicely. But when he’s off balance, then so are the rest of us. My wife and I bicker more, the kids get told off more and a fractious atmosphere pervades.
We put the increasingly awful behaviour down to a combination of illness and being trapped in the house for so long. What he needed, we thought, was a bit of fresh air. So, on the first day that he was feeling a little better, we took a walk to the local newsagent. It took about forty minutes to get there and back (it’s a fifteen minute walk but this is B we’re talking about. He walks in zigzags) and was a very pleasant change of scene, a chance to be outside for a while and a chance to road test my knee. Upon our return, B was like a different child. It took a while to realise just how much calmer he was; bad behaviour is more noticeable than good behaviour. But before long the general quietness of our family home dawned upon us. B was chilled and happy and playing nicely alongside his brother. What a difference that walk had made.
It’s hardly headline news: exercise is good for your kids. It’s not even news to me that a child with a sensory seeking imbalance needs plenty of exercise. I’ve written many times of my son’s flapping, spinning, bouncing need to be active. But this enforced period of inactivity (for all of us), followed by the impact of a bit of physical activity (that went beyond bouncing on my bed in the morning) made it even more obvious. Perhaps it wasn’t so much the benefits of exercise I was seeing, but the consequences of no exercise. All that pent up energy had to find an outlet somewhere. Boy was he a handful. But then, what parent wouldn’t say that about their child ? Am I really writing about autism here, or just parenting in general?
A little research revealed that the connection between autism and exercise does go further than the norm. The autism.com website identifies how:
One of the most effective treatments for autistic people is exercise. Studies show that vigorous or strenuous exercise is associated with decreases in stereotypic (self-stimulatory) behaviors, hyperactivity, aggression, self-injury, and destructiveness. Vigorous exercise means a 20-minute or longer aerobic workout, 3 to 4 days a week; mild exercise has little effect on behavior. Many autistic children gain weight if they have an inactive life-style, and weight gain brings another set of problems.
There are several interesting looking books on the subject such as this, which I’ll get round to reading at some point. I found a good pdf called ‘Top 8 Exercises for Autism Fitness’ that I have put on my Resources page (until they tell me to remove it!). It says:
For the autism population, a unique challenge exists due to several crucial issues:
1) A large proportion of children on the autism spectrum have gross motorimbalances that affect gait, posture, and the ability to correctly perform“big” movements (pushing, pulling, running, climbing, etc.)
2) Few, if any, fitness programs exist that focus on long-term fitnessdevelopment for children, adolescents, and young adults with autism. As a result, the movement deficits or imbalances that occur in infancy continue topersist into later stages of life.
B’s school have already figured this out and, as a result, he has been enrolled on a programme called ‘Get Moving’. Although we’ve had very few details, our understanding is that it is aimed at children with additional needs such as ADHD and autism. It was introduced by the school’s occupational therapist and runs each morning for fifteen minutes before the school bell goes. The children engage in ‘light exercise’, stretching, movement and for all I know, tantric yoga. In an effort to find out more, I googled ‘Get Moving’. All I got was sites about improving bowel movements. Given that we’ve only recently conquered toilet training, that’s the last thing I wanted to read about.
Another name for it would be the ‘Wear the Little Buggers Out Programme’. Excuse my cynicism, but when I heard the roll call of names of children also on the programme it sounded like every ‘problem’ kid in the school was being shoved in the hall and run ragged until they collapsed in a placid, compliant heap on the floor. It’s much easier to teach a child who is focussed (read: knackered) than bouncing off the walls. What makes it worse is that the programme involves leaving the house fifteen minutes earlier in the morning. This might not sound like such a big deal, but believe me, getting out of the house at all some school mornings deserves a medal. There’s also the small matter of B’s brother who, not being in need of ‘focus’ in a morning, has to instead go into his classroom and do fifteen minutes extra work.
Before Christmas, B had done two weeks of ‘Get Moving’ and seemed to like it. He even referred to the other Movers as his ‘friends’. This was a very encouraging thing to hear him say, until we realised he couldn’t actually name any of the other children. I think by ‘friends’ what he actually meant was ‘other children who strike fear into the hearts of teachers who see them on their class list’.
Despite my cynicism, it is encouraging that the school are considering the additional ways in which they can help children like my son. The housebound episode has reminded me to continue to provide B with opportunities to be active.
He’s not the only one who needs a bit of exercise. To say I’ve let things slide on the exercise and fitness front would be an understatement. I think I’ve been guilty in recent months (years?) of thinking “sod it” and failing to look after myself properly. It would be easy to blame this on the difficult times we’ve been through but that would be to imply blame. The only person to blame for me being a fatty is me. For quite different reasons, I need to Get Moving myself. What better time than January to let your guilt and self-disgust drive your desire to diet!
And I no longer have the excuse of a bad knee to stop me!