My last blog post (at least for a long while)

This is my last blog post. Today, I did not wake up knowing that. I just decided in a moment that I had written enough. That is how I make most of my decisions. I think it and I do it, there is no research or rhyme to it, I don’t fluff about. Of course, people who care about me can find this frustrating as they don’t get any warning (and I haven’t asked for anyone’s opinion).

I knew the blog would end sometime soon because I don’t want to write about what we do every day. ‘I got in the car and I drove to the supermarket’ is just no fun at all. I just wanted to spew all the accumulated stories, knowledge and concepts on autism out of my head so that it was free to think of other things. I’ve also been thinking of all the other things that I could be doing instead of blogging for a while now. For example, it’s about time I started doing more exercise, it’s good for my mental health (especially during winter when gray skies impact upon my mood). Like I said, this is my last blog post.

I was going to write about abdominal migraines and the world’s most enormous and poorly timed vomit but will the world benefit from that. I doubt it. Click here for some valuable information that I found on migraines, especially if you get headaches, stomach pains or vomiting (maybe it’s not ‘irritable bowel syndrome’ after all).

There have been ‘ups and downs’ but you don’t know about any of them. Oh, how I have judged myself harshly with this blog, trying to guess how people have perceived what I was writing. Ah social anxiety, you are so much fun. In my mind I was too honest, too weird, too boring, not anonymous enough for my family’s sake, not enough of an autistic advocate, too much of an autistic advocate.

Oh, how I love to quit things. I can blame the ‘ups and downs’ on something else now.

So to end my blogging adventure, I will list what I consider my most informative* posts here:

Autistic Traits and Ability

I Like People

The Stigma of Parenting

Autism and Sensitivity

Diagnosis and labels

Functioning labels

Shame and the Unwanted Identity

Strategies: Communication and Behaviour

Complementary and Alternative Medicine

Anxiety: Avoid or Enable?

Why I am so Socially Awkward

Advocating for Your Child

Acceptance

Sleep

The Myth of Mental Illness and Violence

Bullying

A Popular Organisation to Avoid

In addition, the blog site below has a superb list of other blogs and organisations that are autism friendly:

http://emmashopebook.com/resources/

*I hope you have also enjoyed some of my lighter, more entertaining posts. They were fun to write 🙂

Coordination

Guffaws filled the air as I ‘face-planted’ on the high-school verandah after attempting to walk up several steps on crutches. I had broken my ankle (tibia) after ‘rolling it’ while playing soccer during Physical Education class. Falling with style was never my forte and I guess my face-plant looked comical to teenagers who hadn’t yet mastered the art of empathy.

Over the years, I had laughed off my consistently poor performances in aerobics classes and team sports because people could often relate, albeit in a less affected way, and would laugh with me.

Although I may refer to myself as clumsy, I still insist (when challenged by others) that I am coordinated because sometimes I am. Although, in team sports I often performed poorly (too many variables and sensory overload), I have often fared better in sports like swimming and ‘fun runs’. As a child, I enjoyed playing catch and kicking footballs to and fro with my brother, shooting baskets with a basketball and having a hit of tennis to pass the time; practice that has paid off.

I can catch a ball. I remember watching the movie ‘The boy who could fly’ (as a child) and retrospectively thinking (as an adult) that it could be me catching that baseball before it hit my friends head. I might drop things everyday objects regularly but I often catch them before they hit the ground.

Regardless, I have not invested my self-worth heavily in my physical abilities, perhaps by necessity. Of course, now I have passed on those ‘clumsy genes’ to my sons and the pressure of physical prowess is much greater among boys in our culture. How will they fair?

Jeremy is probably the most affected by clumsiness out of my two sons. Like me, Jeremy has great reflexes (evident when it comes to iPad games that rely on them) and like me he falls often and spectacularly. He provides us with much entertainment at taekwondo. Fortunately, he hasn’t invested his self-worth heavily in physical ability either. He just picks himself up off the padded training mats after attempting a maneuver and laughs out loud, making it impossible for us not to as well.

Taekwondo however has been a challenge for all of us. When we enrolled our boys in taekwondo, Jeremy exclaimed he was so happy that he could cry (my boys had always had an interest in ‘rough and tumble’ play and fighting)*. Jeremy and Damian were always noisily enthusiastic. Nobody calls out the taekwondo cry of ‘Kihap’ as loud as my boys who often followed it up with ‘I am so strong’, ‘This is so easy’ or ‘I am so good at this’.

As much as my boys loved taekwondo it presented many physical challenges and the way my boys coped with it was to wiggle and whinge and flop down on the floor and basically just ‘do their own thing’.

The taekwondo master was extraordinarily patient; more so than me. He told me that they would ‘grow out of it’ (although I doubted it) and he often laughed at their more humorous antics and comments. As their mother though, I’m ashamed to say, I was embarrassed because they weren’t obeying the master and that reflected on me (my parenting).

So, I created a social story in BoardmakerPlus with pictures and YouTube videos of kids and experts doing taekwondo. My narration on the social story explained the levels of taekwondo and other facts that would be interesting to my boys and then covered the ‘rules’ of taekwondo like bowing and showing respect by listening to the instructors.

I then offered my boys the opportunity to earn tokens, for their token charts, as incentives for showing desirable behaviours. Up to three tokens could be earned per session and I reiterated three specific behaviours I wanted to see before each session for the tokens to be earned, which sometimes varied depending on their behaviour the week before. The tokens worked well for Jeremy but not so well for Damian straight away.

An important requirement in taekwondo is to perform a set routine of stances, strikes, kicks, punches and blocks, called a ‘form’, which varies in combinations and difficulty at each level. Even to me, as an onlooker, these forms looked incredibly confusing. How on earth does a child memorise 20 different steps, in the correct order, with such little instruction?

They were expected to memorise their form by practising it at home, but practising it at home meant you had to retain some knowledge of it from practising as a group and when practising as a group my boys tended to get very muddled (not unlike I would become in an aerobics class). It was clear to me that my boys certainly weren’t going to be able to do it on their own at that stage or age. Something had to be done because their frustration levels were high and I did not want ‘forms’ to put them off taekwondo.

So I requested permission to video record the instructors completing each form. I analysed the video at home and mapped it out with pencil on a piece of paper in a shorthand way only I could understand. It wasn’t easy for me but once I learnt to perform it myself, I could teach my boys, one-on-one. I use this method with each new form; however I can skip the mapping part now that I have a basic knowledge of the patterns involved. My boys derive much confidence from their ability to complete their forms, which reflects in their behaviour.

The other day, I received a big surprise. Damian had just gone up a level, to the level that Jeremy was previously on and I hadn’t yet taught him his new form (Jeremy’s old form). The instructor didn’t know that Damian was new to the level (they have a large group of students and it’s hard to keep track) and asked the small group (at that level) if they knew their form. Damian thought that the instructor was referring to his old form so he told her proudly that he knew all the steps. She took him on his word and started the form assuming that he knew it.

Well, didn’t Damian blow me away; he must have been watching Jeremy practise (while playing with his action figures in the same room). He was able to copy it brilliantly for a first attempt, even perfecting a move that he had never done himself before. I raced up to the instructor to tell her that it was the first time he had even attempted that form and her jaw dropped instantly. Like me she praised him for doing so well for a first attempt, knowing that it was quite a victory.

Along with this victory, Damian’s performance of individual motor skills and his form has improved with carry-on effects to his behaviour. The last month or so Damian has been consistently receiving his three tokens at taekwondo (after a year or so of only averaging one token).

In this situation, it was pretty clear that if you improve a child’s ability to participate successfully, in something that they value, then you are likely to find that their behaviour improves too. Behaviour is a logical extension of the difficulties they faced in the first place.

And now for some facts on ‘clumsiness’ in autism:

Clumsiness has a scientific name when it is expressed at a diagnostic level. It is called dyspraxia. In the case of children, developmental dyspraxia can be defined as ‘impairments in the execution of skilled, purposeful or co-ordinated motor activity that are out of proportion to any underlying motor deficits’ (Steinman 2010).

Dyspraxia is more common among children with autism (Miller 2014). The presentation of dyspraxia is varied among children with autism and presents along a spectrum in much the same way that other autistic traits do (Miller 2014).

Daniel Radcliffe (actor, who played the lead role in the Harry Potter film series) writes about his experiences with dyspraxia here, which is an interesting and brief personal account for anyone interested in dyspraxia.

For more facts on dyspraxia (including treatment) refer here.

References:

Steinman, K. Mostofsky, S. Denckla, M. Toward a narrower, more pragmatic view of developmental dyspraxia. Journal of Child Neurology 2010; 25:71-81

Miller, M. Chukoskie, L. Zinni, M. Townsend, J. Trauner, D. Dyspraxia, motor function and visual-motor integration in autism. Behavioural Brain Research 2014; 269:95-102

Notes:

* Jeremy and Damian’s ‘rough and tumble play’ developed and became quite vigorous when Jeremy had just turned 4 and Damian was 2.5yrs old. Fortunately, I was seeing a child psychologist (K) for Jeremy, at the time, so I asked her if I should be concerned about it and what I should do about it.

K asked me how I felt about it and what I had done about it already (I guess because there is no ‘right’ answer and it depends on how the behaviour fits in your own family). K told me that rough play is developmentally typical for approximately 60-70% of boys (I have not looked for a journal reference for that) and that it is a good idea for me to continue to monitor, set boundaries and always supervise it.

Our general rules were ‘no fists’ or ‘open hands’ and ‘no hitting near the head’.

 

 

The stigma of mental illness and violence, a personal account


My eyes are not standard-shaped, I’ve worn glasses since I started school. My optometrist referred to my eyes as egg-shaped but my mum insists that they are almond-shaped. I’ve got my fathers eyes and now I see that my almond eyes will become blood-shot and my eyelids will puff up and redden with age. He was attractive in the few photos that my mother kept of them after she left, but time and circumstance had worn him down; nights without a roof over his head, poor nutrition and health care.

He said “You didn’t want it to be me, did you?” I quickly denied it but he was right. I felt instantly ashamed that I had not wanted him to be the one, for those few minutes. I had seen him standing there at our prearranged rendezvous point, on the steps of the city post office. In that bustling place, he was the only person standing still as if waiting for someone but we hadn’t thought to describe each other and he did not look like my father so how could I know. I stood frozen to the spot, scanning the crowd wondering if my father would turn up, trying not to make eye-contact with the nervous unkempt stranger 5 metres to my left.

On the phone, my father had sounded very well-educated (as he is). The handwritten letter that he left in my mailbox revealed that his writing and grammar were beyond fault but he was shabbily dressed, a result of either his poverty and/or disinterest in appearance. At least he looked warm, I was glad he was not cold. I had come straight from my temporary locum job, which had brought me interstate to where my father lived. He commented on how much he liked my coat and how smart I looked (dressed in my work clothes).

He tried to explain his absence from my life but his explanations didn’t add up. My father had a long history of mental illness, of which he appeared to be in denial. He told me he thought the doctors weren’t telling him the truth about his health. Perhaps they didn’t know the full truth, perhaps it included autism (like me and my sons) but I did not know about autism back then.

He invited me to his one-roomed unit for dinner one evening, he had prepared a very hearty stew. He only had one set of utensils to eat with so he gave me the fork and he ate with the spoon. I tried to make conversation, I wanted to know what he thought about the world, I wanted to know if we had things in common but my conversation skills were very poor and hindered by unspoken truths.

Then, he suggested we go on a road trip together to Port Arthur as he had always wanted to go there. The only thing I knew about Port Arthur was that there had been a horrific and well-publicized massacre there several years earlier. The Port Arthur massacre was carried out by someone (I chose not to use his name because of the danger of affording murderers celebrity status) who was reported by the media (incorrectly, although I didn’t know it at the time) to have had Schizophrenia. I became very nervous about the idea. Why did he have to choose that place of all places?

Actually, I was even nervous just going to his place for dinner. I was aware for many years that my father had been diagnosed with Schizophrenia so I was very interested in finding out more about it when I was younger. I had read several books from libraries about the condition and remembered reading somewhere that people with a diagnosis of Schizophrenia could become violent to those closest to them.

Even though my family assured me that my father was never physically violent, he was essentially a stranger to me and fear was always very close to the surface for me; I couldn’t help feeling concerned for my safety. My fear was also fuelled by an unfair bias informed by popular culture against people with mental illness. I quote the following from the Editor’s summary of a very informative review of the literature (Fazel, 2009) which confirms that the assumption that Schizophrenia predisposes a person to committing violence is misleading:

‘These findings indicate that schizophrenia and other psychoses are associated with violence but that the association is strongest in people with substance abuse and most of the excess risk of violence associated with schizophrenia and other psychoses is mediated by substance abuse. However, the increased risk in patients with comorbidity was similar to that in substance abuse without pyschosis. A potential implication of this finding is that violence reduction strategies that focus on preventing substance abuse among both the general population and among people with psychoses might be more successful than strategies that solely target people with mental illness.’

It is not mental illness but drugs and alcohol that predispose violence. My father did not appear to be to have drugs or alcohol in his life from what I could observe and no one ever mentioned drugs or alcohol as part of his history so my fears were completely unfounded.

In the article, Discussing evil: The problem of “Us” and “Them”, Soraya explains how we enable ourselves to feel more secure and safe by attributing violence to a certain type of person such as someone with a mental illness; those we refer to as “others”. We can then be safe in knowing that no-one we choose to associate with could do something like that and that if we could just cure or quarantine those “others” that present a threat to “us” then we have an easy solution to the problem. But this is firstly not the case and secondly just encourages stigma and violence towards people with a mental illness or other labels.

My father was probably aware that I wasn’t comfortable with the idea of going with him to Port Arthur (possibly my face went pale and conversation halted) even though I did not directly say no. I feel that this unspoken rejection and prejudice may have informed his ensuing behaviour.

The next time I tried to contact my father he did not answer his phone, I went to his unit and knocked on the door but he did not answer. Instinct made me think that he was home. I called his phone from the door and he answered and said he was too unwell to come to the door.

A couple of elderly women who lived in a unit downstairs had heard me knocking on his door. They asked me who I was and if they could help me. I explained my concerns and they gave me the number of his case worker who assisted all the residents.

The case worker informed me that he had a diagnosis of Paranoia and Severe Depression, there was no mention of Schizophrenia. She asked for my contact number but my locum job was almost over, I couldn’t see how I could support him from interstate and it seemed he didn’t want my support anyway. I offered my Godmother’s number instead (my aunt, his sister).

Fifteen years later, I had lost all contact with my father but my exploration of my past had reignited a desire to contact him again. I wanted to share with him that he had grandchildren, I wanted to share what I knew about autism and see if it could help him to come to terms with how he relates to the world (like it did for me).

I felt that if my father wanted support (which he might not) that I was in a position mentally and financially to help him. I wanted to try to connect with him again. This time I thought I could do better, this time I had better social skills, this time I had more life experience, this time I had more to offer him.

After many phone calls, I was given a likely address for him and I wrote him a letter. I had my husband edit out anything that might scare him off (too honest, too weird etc.) and I included photographs of my sons and I.

I have not heard from him, I’m not sure if I ever will but I feel a weight removed from my shoulders. It was also an unspoken apology for unspoken feelings and prejudice.

For more information on the myth of mental illness refer here and here.

For an interesting article on schizophrenia and identity refer here.

A fitting end to a philosophical discussion

It was a public holiday and even though it was winter the weather was fine, so my husband and I decided to take the boys to the park. On the way there, Jeremy said “I know lot of things but there are 3 things I don’t know”. My reply was “Only three things? Did you know that the more that you know, the more you realise you don’t know? Hopefully, in a year there will be 30 things you don’t know and in 3 years there will be 300 things you don’t know and so on.” My husband pointed out that the problem with that, was that you don’t know what you don’t know.

Jeremy asked again “Do you want to know the three things that I’m not sure about?” and then, just so we wouldn’t change the topic again, he quickly added “Space, death and life!” I nodded my head slowly as if to say ‘Great call’.

Jeremy asked me “What do you think happens after you die?” and I said “Well, different people think different things happen after you die.” Jeremy and Damian started talking about what understood death to mean. They talked about not knowing things when you are dead and not being able to do things. They talked about not even  knowing that they are not knowing stuff and not even knowing that they are dead. I rather lamely slip in the word ‘broken’, “The body is broken and can’t work anymore” but judging by their non-plussed reaction it was already obvious to them.

Jeremy and Damian used to get upset with the idea of death. A couple of years ago, Jeremy told me that he was going to ask my husband to build a machine that could bring people back to life  (he must have got the idea from ‘time machines’ on kids television programs). Jeremy was devastated* when my husband confirmed that it was not possible. However, today they were not upset, just curious.

We move on to the topic of life. I say “hmm… well, life is pretty easy. We are alive right now”. Jeremy replied “Yes but where did we come from?”

Jeremy has known about ‘the birds and the bees’ ever since several months ago when I overheard him whispering to Damian that we came from ‘white blood cells’. I was impressed that he had figured out there were cells involved. Years ago, I had purchased the following books (here and here) in anticipation of the discussion about where babies come from. So now Damian and Jeremy have been ‘age- appropriately’ educated about it and have easy access to the books whenever they want to read them.

Given that Jeremy knew where we each individually came from and that we have also discussed Evolution before too, I decided to explain where I thought all things came from. I said to Jeremy “Well, this is where I think everything came from and it’s just what I think, not what everyone else thinks. I believe that everywhere there is at first nothing and when I mean nothing, I mean no air, no particles, no light; just nothing. I also believe that something comes from nothing. From the nothingness a negative particle and a positive particle can occur**. These particles appear often enough in space to sometimes interact with each other in ways that create new particles, which sometimes create larger particles and so on and so on and that’s ultimately where everything in space comes from. That’s what I believe.”

Jeremy asks “What about the Big Bang Theory?” I say that I don’t know much about that. I now suspect it’s just one small (compared to the greater nothingness) occurrence among many other occurrences in space. I don’t know much about space so don’t take my word for it. In fact, I know that I know ‘next to nothing’ about space.

I was baptised and raised as a Catholic. However, as a teenager, I stopped believing in God because it did not seem plausible to me nor did not seem the most fair way to live. I didn’t believe that Eve was created for Adam, I did not think it was fair that men had the greater roles within the church and I did not believe that people were to rule over all animals either. I did not believe in spirits, I did not believe in heaven or hell and I did not think I had committed a sin for not believing in something without having seen it for myself. You can call me a ‘doubting Thomas’ if you like. You get the idea.

The one thing I do believe in is treating people as you would like to be treated. Although, I would even modify that to ‘treating people as they would like to be treated.’ Not everyone wants to be treated like I do and vice versa.

Of course, in the end it is all a matter of interpretation but no religious interpretation of life ever made sense to me. The more objective answers from science seemed to hold the most truth for me; Evolution and the idea that ‘something’ can come from ‘nothing’.

Most of my family remain believers in the Catholic faith and so my boys have had exposure to the concept of God. I take pains not to impose my beliefs on them so that they can make up their own minds about what they believe in, although when Damian asked for statues of God for Christmas (of which there are none, I was to find out, only statues of Jesus) I was sure to include statues of other religious figures so that he was aware of the existence of other belief systems too.

Recently, my boys even read the following prayers (which they were very excited about and read them very well) at my mother’s wedding, at mum’s request:

(Jeremy) For Granny and Adrian who being married life today, for peace in times of chaos and confusion, for generosity, for faith in each other and love beyond reason. May their lives be a sacrament of Christ’s irrational, irresistible, and invincible love for us all.

(Damian) For all those who have died, especially the relatives and friends of Granny and Adrian and of all present today. May they enjoy perfect happiness and total fulfillment in eternal life.

Although, I believe in the scientific explanations of life, I know that I can never be 100% sure of what I believe because every now and then, it occurs to me how fascinating it is that I am alive now with such consciousness, which is not even a fraction of infinite time and space (that I believe in) and that makes it highly improbable that such a thing could happen. The odds of me being alive now are so extraordinary slim that I have to wonder if there is another explanation but it’s just a fleeting thought because I don’t know what a more plausible explanation could be. I know that I don’t know for sure, how things began.

However, returning to topic…Damian, being familiar with God, says “Well I think that God claps and that is where the particles come from” and I said “Then where does God come from? Is God a person?” Jeremy replies “God and all the spirits, came from the particles”.

Jeremy and Damian start getting enthusiastic about mentioning all the ways that God could create particles until Damian took it too far and said “God farted” and my husband added “and that is where all the particles came from” and that is pretty much where the conversation ended. A fitting end to a philosophical discussion.

Notes:

* I found these books (here, here and here) helpful for helping my boys come to terms with death.

** I remember in high-school reading about an experiment conducted in a vacuum where an anti-neutrino and a neutrino appeared from that vacuum spontaneously (I think?), the process of which, was captured on an electron microscope. I never bothered to research it further, it was an idea that worked for me. For the purposes of this blog, I decided to do a quick Google search on the concept of ‘something from nothing’ to see if I didn’t imagine it and I chose one article that was easy enough to read to give you some idea of it, click here.

 

“My dad is NOT a scientist!”

Proceed with caution

My boys were at first disbelieving and then quite distressed when I confirmed that their dad was a scientist*. Jeremy and Damian’s experience of scientists extended to their favourite superhero TV shows where villainous or well-meaning scientists created weapons and mutant monsters for the superheroes to defeat.

When Damian began to cry, we realised the extent of his misunderstanding and had to do some quick talking to reassure them that his dad’s life was not in danger nor was he putting the lives of anyone else in danger**. They still don’t entirely understand what being a scientist means. Every now and again, Jeremy will say goodbye to my husband in the morning and adorably add “I hope you discover something new today!”

Things don’t happen  so quickly in an average scientists lifetime. Information that one scientists gleans from his or her life’s work may only represent one tiny, although essential, piece in a larger puzzle. The puzzle itself being one tiny piece in an even larger puzzle, which somewhere along the way, with input from many other scientists and professionals may eventually lead to an everyday application that a lay person would recognise.

Perhaps that may seem like an insult but its not. Without scientists we would still be back in the Stone Age. It is just a very slow and laborious process with very little new revelation occurring as a percentage of all that is tested.

Hugh Walpole had this to say about science “In all science, error precedes the truth and it is better it should go first than last.” But it’s not really error at all, it’s investigation. Disproving things is an important step in the process. This should come as no surprise to any self-respecting scientist because it is standard practice to approach a theory from the angle of disproving a null hypothesis. Mind you, it takes more than one study to prove (or be unable to disprove) something does what it claims to do.

As Heino Falcke explains in his blog post ‘Science in the era of Facebook and Twitter- get used to it’ consumers need to be wary of the latest headline and scientists need to be wary of the fallout from being too hasty to promote their work.

The greatest bane of my existence (I may have watched a few too many superhero TV shows too judging by the sensationalism in that expression) is the host of misinformation on the internet about health and nutrition and I covered this topic in more detail in an earlier post. Of course, the same can be said for the science behind autism too when so many theories (refer here for more information) and therapies are seemingly accepted as truth (more here). I refuse to mention the ‘therapies in question’ because just mentioning them gives them more exposure that they do not deserve.

As Heino Falcke so eloquently puts it in his blog post (mentioned earlier) “Scientific truth is not the outcome of a single Eureka moment but of a long sociological process and hence it is subject to all human deficiencies”.

The moral of the story is this: Proceed with caution (don’t blindly follow) when considering a new procedure or even when adopting a point of view or making an assumption about someone with a diagnosis. Refer here for some guidance on how to evaluate online resources.

Notes:

*In an earlier blog post, I have briefly referred to my husband as being a teacher (I’m intentionally vague about my husband because his privacy is important to him). To clarify, he has both a teaching and research role.

**My husband wanted me to write: “Although, my husband gets upset he is not a ‘mad scientist'” but I didn’t think it sounded as funny coming from me.

Football is not for everyone but my boys love it

 

My boys love football. Australian Rules Football (AFL) that is. They read AFL magazines as bedtime stories, have AFL stickers on their bed heads and have even named a couple of their teddy bears after their favourite players. They also love to kick a football, a passion which began before they started school, when my husband would take them outside for 30 minutes in the evening, to give me some time to myself.

Jeremy will even sit still and watch a full AFL game on TV (all 80+ minutes of it). The first time Jeremy sat down and watched football on TV, Damian was as dumbfounded as I was and he said “What are you watching that for?”

Like any football code, you support your favourite team, which in any great sporting nation is often determined by your family alliances. My boys’ love of AFL obviously came from their father because it certainly didn’t come from me.

The sound of sirens, whistles, cheers and boos; commentators with deep authoritative voices making broad sweeping repetitive statements about the play and the players, with lots of references to toughness and teamwork, does not appeal to me. Any deviations from the norm, an outspoken opinion from a player, on-field or off-field ‘antics’, a rogue hairstyle or more than the average number of tattoos will be flippantly commented on throughout the game, with equal weight, as air-time fillers.

I have often likened football to the Roman Colosseum when people used to find other people being eaten by lions entertaining. It’s a veritable nightmare trying to teach your children how to be a ‘good sport’ when ‘booing’ (and worse) of umpires and players is commonplace. At the worst of times, my boys’ behaviour is impeccable compared to many other spectators at an AFL match.

However, because my husband and my sons love football, I tolerate it. I’ve even been known to make impressed exclamations when I’ve paid attention enough to notice that there is a good game going on. I know the rules (having been raised in a football loving community) and I even know the words to my boys’ teams’ songs. To top it all off, I finally joined our family footy-tipping competition this year (inclusive of cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents) after my boys’ begged me to join. Funnily enough, I was top of the ladder until last week (it’s all chance, if I am anything to go by).

Damian, unlike Jeremy, bucked the trend with his choice of team. My husband took Damian to his first football match when he was three years old (I tagged along to deal with any fallout) and it was there that he chose his team. We went to see my husband’s team Essendon play the Western Bulldogs. Essendon was tipped to win.

We arrived early to the Essendon V’s Bulldogs game to partake in the pre-game kids’ activities; kicking goals through mini-goal posts and dodging obstacles and getting faces painted and balloons blown up in team colours. By the time the starting siren sounded Damian wanted to go home. We toughed it out for the first quarter with distractions and feigning excitement but Essendon was losing. Eventually, I took Damian for a walk and finally we left altogether at half-time.

Later that evening when my husband and Jeremy arrived home announcing that Essendon won, Damian wasn’t impressed. With a love of dogs and the colour blue, the Bulldogs had caught Damian’s attention and from that day forward Damian was a Bulldogs supporter. Of course, he has wavered here-and-there to the winning team of the season and even threatened to barrack for Collingwood at one point (Essendon’s ‘arch rivals’) but ultimately he always returned to the Bulldogs.

The story of Damian’s love of the Bulldogs recently won him a competition that entitled him to run on the field with the players before the game commenced. We did our best to prepare him for it and while Damian was excited I was very nervous. I hoped that he wouldn’t become overwhelmed or upset if he lost sight of us on that massive stadium in front of the 15+ thousand crowd. But Damian was too excited to be overwhelmed, and proved to be a star performer.

He posed for the cameras in style, almost like a body builder would with fists in the air, biceps flexed and a fierce-looking competition face. We videotaped the occasion and played it for his class at school. He was very popular that day. One classmate even turned around and asked if he played with them too.

Then there was Auskick. When the boys were 4 and 5 years old respectively, I wanted to enrol them in Taekwondo but my husband wanted them to join Auskick so we decided they could do both, much to our boys’ delight.

Auskick is an AFL-sponsored, volunteer-run program for young children to teach them some of the skills of football and to encourage them to become enthusiastic membership-paying AFL supporters in the future.

My boys were already experienced in kicking a football but they weren’t used to a ‘real’ Auskick game, where kids fall over each other trying to get the ball and only ever manage to handle the ball once or twice for the entire game.

The umpires try to share the ball around as much as possible letting the less skilled or less actively-involved kids kick the ball in from the goals or have a turn tapping the ball out from the ruck. Once or twice an umpire will even join the game as a player to make sure that the ‘losing’ team gets to touch the ball. Although, the umpires don’t take score during the game, the kids still score in their heads and it’s obvious when a team gets thrashed. So there are plenty of triggers for disappointment and meltdowns for children in an Auskick game.

Damian in particular, would often cry when he got hurt or get upset when his team was losing. It usually resulted in him refusing to play for five or ten minutes at a time and announcing that it is the “worst day of his life”. Regardless of the sentiments, they always wanted to come back again for more the next week. It is extra incentive for our boys’ that my husband and I both help out with various Auskick activities, which is a lot of fun and they love playing with us on the oval after the session has finished too.

I can actually kick a football better than your average woman because I took it upon myself as the eldest of four girls in my family to teach our only brother that ‘all important’ skill. I obviously thought he needed tuition at the time. We spent many an afternoon kicking the football to each other over the years, he only wished we had practised goal kicking too (and probably tackling and handballs etc.).

This year, unlike the year before, Damian and Jeremy were in separate age groups for Auskick, so my husband and I would split up and alternate between each group. The day before Damian got to run under the banner with the Bulldogs team he was so excited and in such an excellent mood that he didn’t get upset during Auskick at all and I thought that finally he may have developed enough experience and coping skills to manage better from now on.

A week or two later, I was away for the weekend and my husband took Jeremy and Damian to Auskick by himself. I got a phone call later that day from my husband to say that Damian had a bad day.

Unfortunately, a new umpire ran Damian’s Auskick game that day and she wasn’t as skilled at sharing the ball around. When Damian finally got the ball for the first time the umpire blew the whistle and took it off him because he had run too far with it (after being crowded by a few of the better players). Well, Damian did not cope well with that at all. My husband reported that he was very confused and very upset and was insisting over and over again that he never wanted to go to Auskick again.

My husband managed to convince Damian to come back to Auskick the next week with the compromise that Damian would not be expected to play the game. Instead he could just join in with the before-game activities and drills. When the next week came, Damian seemed very relaxed watching the game with me from the sidelines. We clapped and encouraged the children together and I intentionally commented on a couple of occasions when someone got rid of the ball quickly before the whistle blew.

Another week went by and I asked Damian if he was going to play the game this time. Damian started to complain about how no-one ever passed the ball to him and how he hardly ever got to touch the ball. My husband and I did our usual spiel about how the kids were still learning how to pass the ball and still found it difficult, how even professional AFL players don’t get to touch the ball often in a game and how he could stand in the opposition’s goals where he was likely to get the ball more often and run towards the ball when it was near.

The usual spiel didn’t satisfy him until I said “How about I make a tally of  how many times each child gets the ball during the game to show you that you are not the only one who doesn’t get to touch the ball often?” Instantly, Damian liked the idea of the tally and agreed to join in the game.

I’m not surprised that something relying on data collection with observable and measurable results would appeal to Damian; a true scientist in the making. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

Fortunately, we also had an experienced umpire that day and they split the groups into smaller teams so everyone got to touch the ball more often. In addition, Damian was so inspired by my tallying exercise* that he got very excited about getting involved and touching the ball. Each time he got the ball he was able to pass it on fast and then he would run over to me all excited “Did you see that mum? I got the ball! Did you see that?” And lo and behold, Damian did not get upset once. That’s two days of ‘no upsets’ out of two years of Auskick, within one month.

Results of the Auskick Tally for kicks only

There are very few things more rewarding to me than watching my children reach turning points when it comes to more successfully managing life’s challenges. It takes my boys longer to get there sometimes but that just makes it all the more sweeter when they do finally get there.

Notes:

*In case you were wondering, I did feel self-conscious standing there keeping tally of the game wondering what the other parents thought of my abnormal behaviour. Perhaps they thought I was taking it a little too seriously. Afterwards, I asked a couple of the mums I knew, if they had noticed (they hadn’t noticed) and I explained what I was doing. One mum was shrewd enough to ask if Damian had been right after all (something that had also crossed my mind) and mentioned that “there is an app for that” (not such an original thought after all).