The Great Outdoors

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Back in January, I read The Primal Connection by Mark Sisson and made a commitment to myself to follow the principles for health outlined in the book.  I was most interested in using experiences in nature as a means for improving mental health, particularly mine and Charlotte’s. I was intrigued with the idea that time outdoors could provide the sensory input her body was seeking. It seemed to be the perfect extension of Paleo principles–if eating and moving like our ancestors improved our physical health, then using nature as a tool would appropriately engage our senses, restore a sense of well-being and contentment, and improve our neurological health.

I decided to give it a try based on my past and recent experiences in nature that have confirmed the theory that it is, in fact, calming and anxiety-reducing to “get away from it all”. Each year after our annual hiking and fishing trips to Mammoth Lakes in the Eastern Sierra, I return with a renewed spirit and deep sense of gratitude and connection.

When the school year started last Fall, my friend Rachel and I committed to taking long walks or hikes together once per week. Come rain or shine, we have hiked and talked and bonded over the challenges and triumphs of raising a Paleo family. The time outdoors has become uniquely ours and resulted in a deeper level of connection in our friendship.

My most cherished memories as a child come from time outdoors. We spent many family vacations at the beach, and when I now visit as an adult, I fondly remember the taste of sea water in my mouth and the feel of kelp at my ankles and the exhilaration of riding swells into the shore on my boogie board.

As I read Mark’s book, I found myself asking, if experiences in nature seem to nurture positive feelings of gratitude and connection, along with providing strong sensory feedback, why are we not spending more time outdoors?

Over the past few months, I have made more of an effort to get myself and the kids outside, and I’ve learned several things about making this element of our health a true priority.

It works

A few weeks ago, I picked Charlotte up from school on a Wednesday afternoon. Her teachers reported that she was calm and focused all day. I did a quick mental checklist of how much sleep she’d gotten, what she’d eaten, and what we’d done the day before so I make sure to replicate this formula for success many times over. Of course, I wasn’t surprised, remembering our quiet Tuesday afternoon at the beach together. She had happily played in the sand and mild sunshine, slept well that night, and performed well at school the next day. I now pay very close attention to how her outside time relates to better behavior and when questionable behavior may need an intervention in the form of a simple walk around the block or hopscotch in the front yard.

The Primal Connection mentioned that time outdoors spurs creative energy and encourages more independent play, and I didn’t believe it until I saw it. Charlotte has reduced her TV watching and ipad playing to just a few hours a week–completely voluntarily. When returning home from school or therapy, instead of zoning out in front of the screen, she happily gets to work making a craft or coloring a picture, consuming herself in creative thought for long periods of time.

Keep it Simple

I have learned that just like adopting the Paleo diet, this, too is a shift in thinking and takes patience and learning with yourself to find a groove. There have definitely been times over the last few months when I’ve bitten off more than I can chew. Some Saturday mornings, I’ll wake up ready to have a fun family day outdoors, only to find that I’m ripe with exhaustion. A quick recap of the week tells the story–cooking, hiking, CrossFit, grocery shopping, beach trips, kids’ activities, and homework leave no energy for new adventures requiring any extra effort. I’ve learned to scale back the expectations of myself and adopt this new aspect of our lifestyle more carefully. I often need to remind myself that our simple outdoor experiences are usually the most successful.

I have learned to consider that it all takes energy to make it work, and it won’t always go smoothly. Over Easter weekend, we visited my in-laws and took a walk on a nature trail that included Charlotte falling off of her bike and melting down, a grumpy old golfer accusing us of trespassing, and a near dog mauling with our dog and another dog off-leash. Needless to say, I wasn’t any more relaxed from our outdoor experience when we returned home. But rather than give up or blame myself on some level, we laughed it off and decided it certainly was a walk to remember.

Letting Go

I’ve found that Charlotte struggles the most with sensory dysregulation when she is not in control of her environment. As she has gotten older, she has learned communication and other coping tools to deal with simple things like sharing with her sister or waiting her turn. However, even in her progress, I can still see her sensory issues come alive in places where she cannot touch or feel or move like she needs to.

Yesterday I took her to a duck pond in our local community and learned an important lesson about environment. I couldn’t bring myself to buy bread to feed to the ducks, so when we arrived empty-handed, I anticipated a brief, twenty-minute excursion with nothing much to do except watch the ducks from afar and walk around the bank. When we arrived, I sensed that Charlotte wanted to be in control. I let go and while I let her guide me around the pond, I observed how her mind and body relaxed in the natural environment. I snapped photos of her as she used her muscles and maneuvered the tree roots and twigs on the banks, how she balanced using the tree’s trunk, and how she calmed when her feet entered the cool pond water. She was relaxed and at peace in a natural setting that had an ebb and flow all its own.

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When she slipped off her shoes to feel the earth on her feet, I kept on eye on the ground just ahead of her watching for broken glass or sharp twigs, but trusting that her senses were appropriately doing the work for her. We watched the turtles swim, listened to the crane’s call, and noted the bright orange color of the duck’s webbed feet. It felt natural and right and so simple.

As we walked to the car, Charlotte was already planning our next trip to the duck pond–this time with Dana, Daddy and his fishing pole, since there were fish in the water. I felt the weightlessness of her tiny hand in mine as we crossed the parking lot–using my senses to grab the moment and become fully aware of the precious time we had just shared.

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It takes Serenity, Courage, and Wisdom

Each day I pick up Charlotte from preschool, I immediately check her lunch box. She has recently started attending 3 full days of pre-kindergarten and now eats lunch and takes naps at school. The transition has been exceptionally smooth and I find that if I stock her lunch full of her favorite foods, I’m pretty guaranteed to see only crumbs left in her Planet Box.

Last Wednesday I found her precious salmon cakes in the protein compartment completely untouched. I got little information from her teacher’s aide about why her lunch wasn’t finished, and it was ultimately Charlotte on the car ride home who provided me with the key piece of information that I needed.

When she shared from the backseat that she had enjoyed a smoothie at school today, I pressed further. When I asked her what was in the smoothie, she promptly reported strawberries, raspberries, and yogurt. Yogurt? I began scanning my brain for the last conversation I had with her school staff about dairy. Had I made it clear that she couldn’t have dairy? I probably didn’t remind them this school year. So worried about gluten and grains, I completely forgot dairy! Swirls of guilt and confusion set into my thoughts and they were only made worse by what I saw when we got home.

I asked Charlotte if she had experienced a tummy ache or if anything hurt. She told me she felt fine, but while I watched her watching her favorite movie, Dora Explorer Girls, I saw the regulation and predictability around her behavior that we had recently gained slowly evaporate. As hard as she tried, she couldn’t sit still. Sensory seeking behaviors like pacing around the table, pushing on the edge of the table with her foot, and inverting herself in weird positions into the couch cushions were telling signs that things were not right in her body–all of a sudden.

A few minutes later she was arguing with her sister and communicating less. What she was saying wasn’t making sense. Her delicious Paleo dinner sat untouched, and I predicted a difficult night shift for myself, as Chad was out-of-town. Sure enough, at some point in the middle of the night, I woke up to find her pacing around my room in the dark, argumentative and upset about going back to bed.

Thursday morning I woke up feeling overwhelmed and upset. We had a full day ahead, and I was dysregulated myself–struggling with PMS and interrupted sleep. I was feeling angry and distressed, wondering why everything in my life has to be so hard.

And then I stopped. 

I found the strength that is found in clear and healthy thoughts, and I pulled out the mental tool box I have developed to help myself in these situations. I meditated a bit in the morning, said the Serenity Prayer several times, and then made a plan to help Charlotte.

When we arrived at our Occupational Therapy session a few hours later, I explained the situation to our wonderful therapist and asked for a restorative and regulatory session to get Charlotte’s nervous system under control. I took a brisk walk during her session to regulate myself and when she emerged, I could already see by the way that she sat down in the chair next to me that she was restored on many levels. I thanked our therapist profusely, and we went about our day with very few issues. The next day I spoke to her school and asked that dairy not be served to Charlotte. I asked the staff to substitute the gluten-free cookies that I had provided as an alternate treat.

I’ve often said that when Charlotte’s routine changes, it’s like a switch is flipped internally. She becomes dysregulated, withdrawn, frustrated, and just more autistic than we normally see. This was the first time I had ever see it happen with food. It was scary and empowering at the same time. I thought back to The Autism Revolution, which I continue to reread in parts every couple of days. The following quote stood out to me about our recent situation. From page 107 in Chapter 5 Help the Body Mend the Brain:

“…that autism may be more of a ‘state’ that can change than a ‘trait’ that is fixed and unchangeable. Change can come very quickly when a blockage is somehow removed or a previously unworkable connection is made.”

As parents we know these workable connections so well. In the form of eye contact, verbal processing, clear and understandable questions and answers, or even a lack of repetitive speech or nonsense talk, it’s when we reach our kids and see them respond. It’s exhilarating and inspiring. We keep at it and work toward more growth, improved communication, and the holy grail of self-regulation.

It’s my belief that when the workable connections break down, the child needs our help to restore order. No one else knows what they need like we do. From twisting into pillows in the couch to screaming at me in the middle of the night, I knew that Charlotte was calling out for help.

It’s a big responsibility. It’s overwhelming, exhausting, and lonely.

Parents of special needs children must wake each and every morning and recommit to helping their child get exactly what they need using varied skills and strategies–carefully planned meals, critical but objective observation, appropriate and efficient communication with others who deal with the child, as well as walking a tight rope schedule that challenges the child to be a part of the outside world while preventing their total load of stressors from reaching the dreaded tipping point.

My victory over yogurt last week taught me that in addition to all of things listed above, the skill of taking care of myself is a crucial step in regulating Charlotte. After pushing through PMS symptoms, anger, and guilt I was able to get to a place of problem solving and solutions.

It’s taken me years of difficult experiences to build a tool box full of helpful strategies and support, but over time I am learning to find the Serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the Courage to change the things I can and most importantly, the Wisdom to know the difference.

Eating Paleo in the Real World: It’s a Jungle Out There

 

Most people I speak to about the Paleo lifestyle understand its benefits and can see it working for their family on some level. I most often hear the what ifs and what abouts around things like birthday parties, restaurants, grandparents’ house, and even school. In fact, my WordPress stats show me that many people come to this site via Google searches like Paleo lunches, Paleo birthday parties, and Paleo on the go.

Clearly, this is a valid question for most people considering the switch to Paleo, and I completely understand these concerns. So today I thought I’d share with you the crazy-updside-down week that my family and I just lived through. After reading this you will see that eating Paleo is possible when life pulls you outside of the comfort of your own kitchen.

Scenario #1: The Dance Recital

Dana and Charlotte participate in weekly ballet lessons, and twice a year their studio puts on performances. Last December, Charlotte made her performance debut in The Nutcracker. After agonizing over the decision of whether she was ready for a commitment to the classes, the rehearsals, getting on stage, and the chaos of it all, she put our mind at ease and performed like a champ.

Her motivation to perform and endure the challenges that come with it most likely come from the years of watching her sister dress up in costumes and make-up to be cheered and praised by friends and family. Having survived the stress and anxiety of the December performance, we knew she would love the performing experience again and we used what we learned to be better prepared this time around.

On the night of the dress rehearsal, we were told to arrive at 5:00pm. Both girls needed to have hair and make-up done and were instructed to bring dry snacks, not to be eaten in costume. As you can imagine, examples of dry snacks were non-Paleo foods like crackers, pretzels, and granola bars. I entertained the idea of eating an early dinner just before we left, but with a 30 minute drive to the stage, hair and make-up to be done, and a nap for Charlotte until the last possible second, packing food for dinner was the only option. I had planned ahead the night before by roasting a large chicken with lots of meat and baking a few extra potatoes, ensuring easy-to-pack leftovers.

Dana’s Planet Box is shown below. The foods were not exactly dry, but not messy either. I kept an eye on her in the holding area backstage and made sure she used her napkin, didn’t eat in her costume, and washed her hands immediately upon finishing her dinner. I also let her know that other kids would have junk food/fast food, and that just wasn’t an option for us.

Charlotte’s dinner was similar, but catered to her preferences. Lots of napkins and washing hands kept her and the costume clean and her belly full.

Since I was camped out with Dana at the dress rehearsal until 10pm that night (Chad picked up Charlotte earlier) I knew that Paleo food was the only way to survive the marathon of dance numbers I had the privilege of watching. Here’s my dinner:

Both girls performed beautifully and the recital was a huge success!

It’s worth mentioning that the anxiety that comes with hours of waiting in a holding area filled with jittery, young dancers brought Charlotte’s needs for sensory input out in the open. I managed to snap a few shots of her regulating herself in a stressful environment. While these situations are not ideal, I was very proud of her for finding ways to stay calm enough to avoid a meltdown, still remember her dances, and even smile on stage.                                       

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Scenario #2: The Hospital

On the night of the recital, Chad mentioned to me that his stomach was not quite right and he was feeling pain and discomfort. At 3 am, he woke me up from a sound sleep and let me know this stomach pain was like nothing he had experienced before. We phoned the ER, and he was told to come in with a driver. I made a call to my amazing friend Siiri, and she arrived at our door within minutes to stay with our sleeping kids.

After isolating the pain to the lower right quadrant of Chad’s abdomen and getting a CT scan, it was determined that he was in the midst of an appendicitis attack. We were thrilled to see our friend Dr. Mike at the hospital who reassured us that this was a random event that had nothing to do with diet, lifestyle, or overall health. With a sigh of relief, Chad slipped into a morphine nap and we waited for an OR to open and have his angry appendix removed. 

I checked on the kids and then began to think about some breakfast for myself. Seeing that my health issues tend to center around stressful events, bringing on excessive adrenaline, I knew that some clean food was in order to get me through a long day at the hospital. I fought feelings of panic and anxiety as I approached the hospital cafeteria cautiously, expecting to find nothing suitable for to me eat.

I was delighted to find a bar of warm food with eggs, sausage, and bacon. I loaded up my plate with dry-but-edible scrambled eggs, 2 pieces of bacon, and some starchy carbs in the form of tasteless hash browns. (I’m one of those carb eating Paleo people, and I do much better keeping potatoes in the rotation a few times per week)

After my Paleo breakfast and a hot cup of coffee, I felt much better and Chad and I hung out until it was time for his surgery. After I got word from his doctor that he had made it through surgery, I ventured back down to the cafeteria for lunch. I ordered a bunless hamburger from the man at the grill and cheated with some sweet potato fries (I’m sure it was not coconut oil that I saw in the deep fryer).

Once Chad was settled in an overnight room, I was back at the cafeteria for dinner and asked for a grilled chicken breast to sit on top of lettuce greens and veggies from the salad bar, drizzled with olive oil and balsamic vinegar. When I returned to Chad’s room to eat my dinner, he joked at how Paleo it was and that we should consider a date night at the hospital cafeteria.

While it was surprising to find Paleo options at the cafeteria, it did take a certain amount of will power and focus to walk past plenty of packaged foods and treats that seemed to be more tempting in times of stress and little sleep. Resisting this temptation and eating clean paid off when I returned home at 8pm and found that I had enough energy and sanity to put my very tired kids to bed. I gave huge hugs to my incredible friends Kimberly and Siiri who not only kept my kids entertained all day but managed to feed them Paleo all day as well.

Scenario #3: Junk food at Summer Day Camp

There was no rest for the weary over the weekend at home as I tended to Chad in his recovery, nursed Charlotte with a throat virus and a fever, got my house back in order, and managed my own needs for sleep and rest. In the midst of this chaos, I kept the upcoming week in the back of my mind. Dana was scheduled to attend a week-long day camp at our church, and I had been informed of the provided snacks via email. While we normally opt for packing our own snacks at events where a non-Paleo snack is provided, this situation provided a bit more of a challenge.

All of the snacks were tied thematically to the day’s lesson, and most of them involved junk food, including goldfish crackers, pretzels, marshmallows, whoppers, and other candies. I knew that asking Dana to sub a box of raisins for these super fun activities and treats was too much to ask. She is still a kid, after all.

I talked to her about the situation, and the food options would may have worked fine if it were just a one day camp. But given that the camp was all week and the fever bug was running through our house, I knew I needed a more Paleo option to give Dana the best chance at staying healthy and enjoying the camp.

I remembered seeing a cookie-like treat made with sunflower seed butter in our copy of Eat Like a Dinosaur by The Paleo Parents. I was so relieved to find a quick and easy recipe for Mini Nut Butter Cups. We made a bunch of super-yummy, kid-friendly, nut-free, muffin-shaped cookies with just a few ingredients that were easy to transport. This morning we filled a baggie with a bunch of grapes and a few cookies and sent her off to camp with a snack that she was excited to eat, despite what the other kids had. 

We survived this week and managed to eat clean with the help of our amazing friends, some luck, lots of preparation, and a wonderful resource. It has taken two years, but I can proudly say that we have established a lifestyle around Paleo. We were able to make it work in the most trying of circumstances. So the next time someone asks us about Paleo and all of the what ifs and what abouts, I’ll remind them that it’s not just a way of eating, it’s a way of living.

For more inspiration on staying Paleo in trying times, read about NomNomPaleo’s adventures of living in a hotel room with her family for the last 2 months.

A Lesson Learned

Approximately one year ago, we moved to a new home. It was only about 1 mile from our previous home, and the neighborhood was familiar. We were moving only a few blocks from our very close friends. Escrow closed in the first weeks of the new year. Little did we know how much we would learn from the timing of our move.

We visited the home often before we moved, explained as much as we could to both girls to prepare them for the transition. The first few days and weeks went smoothly. No troubles arose until Charlotte’s 3rd birthday at the end of February. As some of you may have experienced, the third birthday is very significant in the world of a special needs child. Under the age of three, the child can (somewhat easily) qualify for Early Start services. This is a state program where the child is evaluated and receives therapies or services, depending on their individual needs. Charlotte had qualified for a center-based program where she was working on controlling her sensory dysregulation impulses in a classroom setting.

She thrived in this environment and loved her school. Three mornings per week, her caring and supportive team of teachers gave both of us what we needed at this point…a community where we felt like we belonged, specific strategies to help with behavior issues at home, and a safe opportunity for Charlotte to practice her emerging, yet delayed, social skills.  Unfortunately, the center-based school and all Early Start services abruptly end on the child’s third birthday.

The next step for continued services is through the school district or medical insurance. We hit an immediate road block with both of these options. Charlotte’s strong language and motor skills kept her from qualifying for anything. We were encouraged to mainstream her. On a cold and dark March morning, I made calls to local preschools. With apprehension and a fear of being rejected, I explained our situation to the newly-opended preschool from the same elementary school that Dana attended. We were welcomed with open arms, yet we were fully aware that this was a mainstream situation and these teachers had completely different training and experience than where we had just come from. I alternated my teacher and parent hats, connecting with and educating the preschool staff, filling them with as much information as I could that was specific to Charlotte’s needs at that time–sensory regulation issues, social delays, repetitive language, and defiant behavior. Despite my best efforts and the wonderfully receptive teaching staff, it was a brutal change for Charlotte.

Looking back, I wonder how we could have been so blind to how these huge changes were going to affect her.  I think we’ve learned so much about her needs from this journey, that experiences like these have begun to guide our choices, our actions, and our parenting. We see it all so clearly now, but at the time she was the teacher and we were the students. She took us back to the beginning of her life to let us know how much she was affected–she stopped sleeping.

Just like in infancy, it was slow at first. Initially, just some trouble going down at bedtime. It would take a few trips into her bedroom to settle her down to sleep. As the nights progressed, there was more resistance going down, and eventually waking a few hours later. This could be as early as 10 or 11pm–just as we were winding down, she would appear wide-eyed in our doorway. At the worst point, she would be awake for several hours in our bed, absolutely refusing to go into her own room.

We have always been a big fan of sleep hygiene, so we were hesitant to start any habits that were going to be difficult to break later on. We knew that letting her learn to sleep in our bed was going to be a battle we would have to fight eventually, so we faced it head-on. We had done “sleep training” with both girls in the early days with success, but we were stuck with knowing that wasn’t going to work for Charlotte. We were confident that she would have cried all night, never allowing herself to go to sleep.

I tried everything I could think of–I stood outside of her door in the dark hallway for hours, trying to wean myself away from her so she could learn to sleep on her own. It was maddening to hear her fall asleep and then wake herself up screaming for me. One night I remember rocking her in the rocking chair for over an hour, only to have her awake and talking to me, instead of getting sleeping or even drowsy.

It was in the middle of one sleepless night that I remembered the sensory inputs that we had done early-on in her diagnosis. With her improved skills and sensory regulation, we hadn’t needed to do any bouncing, brushing, massage, or swinging. The next morning we made an appointment with the Occupational Therapist that we had worked with through Early Start. We paid the $125 for an hour-long session that would teach us to regulate and calm Charlotte’s nervous system to find sleep again.

We brought back all of our old tools and re-learned the importance of sensory input in Charlotte’s life. Without hesitation, we added in joint compressions, brushing therapy, jumping, and swinging to her daily routine. She began to seem like her old self in her new environment. We recognized that sensory regulation was not a ball we could afford to drop again, so we sought out private Occupational Therapy and began to pay for as much as we could afford. In the meantime, I filled a grievance with our insurance company for failure to cover her needs.

After a few weeks of rigorous sensory regulation inputs that made her feel comfortable in her new environments, Charlotte began sleeping better. We have learned so much about how to make her comfortable in her environment and how to help prepare her for sleep. We make sure she gets plenty of exercise in the form of therapy or play throughout the day. We start her bedtime routine early and give her a lot of time to get ready to go to sleep. Rocking, bouncing, massage, and other inputs became part of of her bedtime routine. We limit her naps and keep her bedtime consistent.

Currently she falls asleep easily and then wakes only once to come into our bed. Once there, she falls asleep quickly and sleeps soundly until morning. While it’s certainly not perfect, and we have tried everything from bribery to physically moving her to keep her in her own bed, we accept it as her progress and listen to what she continues to need–safety and security in the form of us.

Sensory inputs and twice weekly Occupational Therapy Sessions are firmly set in our schedule. We learned that this is absolutely crucial to her healthy sleep patterns. Also, with any change in routine or her environment, we prepare Charlotte with words and visuals. We travel less often, knowing how it stresses her system and affects her sleep. We let her be our guide for a busy weekend with friends or a mellow night at home with an early bedtime. We still look for the fine balance between challenging her system with new experiences and stressing her system to the point of dysregulation.

I heard Chris Kresser say on a recent podcast that more melatonin is produced in the gut than in the brain. I nodded in agreement and reflected on the lessons we have learned about sleep, change, regulation, and overall health in this past year. As we heal her gut with the Paleo diet, we will heal her brain and nervous system, and she will find more comfort in her environment with fewer sensory inputs.

In the meantime, we’ll celebrate Charlotte’s 4th birthday this month and all of the lessons we’ve learned together.

A Perfect Storm

A few weeks ago, I was having a conversation with one of Charlotte’s Occupational Therapists about her defiant behavior. I had been noticing a pattern that went something like this: change in her routine due to holiday/illness/schedule, inappropriate sensory seeking behavior, Chad and I jumping in to regulate sensory needs, defiant and uncooperative behavior that diminishes over time. The cycle wrecks havoc on my mental state as I feel relief and exhaustion from the tide of dysregulation just passed and restlessness at the thought of the next swell coming upon us.

As I was talking to her I felt like an old weathered sea captain regaling his tales, vividly describing each cycle as a storm more difficult to bear than the last….with a thoughtful and far-off expression I discuss The Dysregulation of ’11…when we moved from one house to another…….oh, yes, then there was the Starting School Dysregulation last August….that was a really bad one….many nights of bad sleep, impulsive behavior…..and then there was the one just a few months ago when her preschool teacher left….horribly defiant….

She smiles patiently while I carefully explain each harrowing experience after another, all the while, I’m searching for appropriate amounts of validation and sympathy. She finally nods and concludes that this is all “normal”. I really don’t like that word and stare at her as if that answer is completely unacceptable. She squares herself in her chair to look at me and says, “It’s a good thing. The nervous system is resetting itself in preparation for more growth.”

I’ve been carefully considering the therapists words over the last few weeks, as illness stole our family’s sense of routine and order, and we have begun a new and mild cycle of dysregulation. It’s mild in the sense that her sensory issues are more under control, but it has been difficult in the sense that pragmatic speech has been affected. We’re hearing more scripted language, seeing less eye contact, and generally feeling less connected to her. This certainly doesn’t sit well with me as we can’t get Speech Therapy to save our lives, and my anxiety switches begin turning ON as I’m feeling helpless and out of control.

I force myself to come out of the haze of worry and fear and begin to put my concerns into constructive questions. At the next meeting with the therapist, I find myself asking questions like, “now that she’s more sensory regulated, will her patterns of dysregulation look more social and speech related?” Again, she calmly nods Yes. We discuss options for how to regulate her when she seems socially disconnected.

A few days later I’m reading The Way I See It by Temple Grandin on my Kindle and this quote strikes me…

“the best thing a parent (of a newly diagnosed parent can do) can do is to watch their child without preconceived notions or judgments and learn how the child functions, acts, and reacts to his or her world.” (parentheses mine)

I suddenly realize that I can take these two pieces of information and put them together to calm myself and help Charlotte. With careful practice, I begin to observe without my veil of anxiety and worry. Instead of squirming around her nonsense questions and comments, I find her eyes with mine and tell her that she’s not making sense. I coach her into finding better words to explain what she’s thinking and reward her for her efforts. It helps, and she seems relieved that I find this connection with her. She’s excited to tell me more about Max and Ruby’s adventures or what she did at school. She wants to ask what we’re doing tomorrow and when is her birthday. I find my own connection with her and ultimately find my peace of mind.

I tell myself that in giving her the words and safety she needs to communicate, she will experience a new surge of growth. The cycle will complete itself, and the next one will bring new and different challenges. My anxiety continues to rest at bay but these thoughts allow me to breathe a little easier. I remind myself that it just takes time and patience.

I ease up from bracing myself for the impact of the storm and ride the waves as if I’m on the voyage of a lifetime.

My favorite things…

I was never a huge fan of Oprah, but I do remember that she had an episode every now and then where she shared her favorite material possessions with her viewers. I hate to sound like a Bitter Betty, but really? What is the point of this?  Except making extreme amounts of money for some company that manufactures T-shirt bed sheets and making the rest of us feel envious for her over-the-top lifestyle, it seems a little shallow and self-absorbed to me.

So, here I go with my list of favorite things, which are quite a bit different from Oprah’s. These really have become things that we couldn’t live without. Chances are you won’t be jealous of my lifestyle after reading these and hopefully you’ll actually find some valuable down-to-earth products that will help you make it through a difficult day.

1. Microwavable bacon–okay, I know that hard-core Paleos may squirm at his staple in our household, but school day mornings are hectic and I am solo getting my kids dressed, fed, and out the door. I’ve written about how some mornings with a dysregulated 3-year-old can be disaster, so here’s to something easy and yummy. We get ours at Costco for about 12 bucks.

2. Applegate Farms Hot Dogs….since we’re talking about meat….Applegate Farms  grass-fed beef hot dogs are another quick and easy meal option. They’re not cheap (Trader Joe’s sells them for about $5/package and I’ve seen them at Whole Foods for $7-$8) but you pay for grass-fed meat without nitratres or preservatives.

3. Tropical Traditions Coconut Oil…hands-down one of the most valuable products we use. I firmly believe that coconut oil has healed Charlotte’s gut in a way that few other foods could. We buy the gallon size every 4-6 months and use this to cook everything from sweet potatoes to eggs to reheating leftovers. It also makes a great skin mositurizer and deodorant.

4. Trampoline–I recently asked Charlotte’s Occupational Therapist for one thing I could do to keep her regulated over the holidays. I was surprised to hear her say bounce-and-crash. We have always encouraged her to jump on the trampoline to gain proprioceptive input, but I recently added crash pillows for her to get the added compression sensation she is craving.

5. Benik Compression Vest–When Charlotte attended a center-based program last year, one of her teachers suggested a compression vest to help her sit still during circle time. It has become so useful and frequently-used over the past year, that I can easily tell when she needs it.

6. Sleep Sheep–My sister recently had her first baby, and I sound like a broken record when she calls to talk about the baby’s sleeping, “Do you have the sheep by her head? Is it turned up really loud?” We laugh about it now, but having soothing noise for babies or dysregulated sleepers of any age is priceless. We also use it at rest/naptime, setting the timer for 45 minutes, Charlotte knows she must rest in her room until the sheep turns off.

7. The vegetable box, as it’s affectionately referred to in our house, is our weekly CSA allotment. It often has fruit or non-vegetable items, but the all items are delicious and fresh, and it also keeps our meals unique and our fridge stocked with healthy fruits and veggies.

8. Eggs. A few months ago, I began to seek out fresh local eggs after the Costco Organic Free Range Eggs were looking pale in color and small. I was able to track some down from a friend who raises chickens. The color and size of real eggs is unbelievable, and I feel really good giving my kids such a visually nutrient-dense food.

9. My iPod–okay, so this one probably sounds materialistic and non-Paleo, but it wasn’t until I recently lost my iPod that I realized how much I loved mine and needed it. During Charlotte’s twice weekly therapy sessions, I take a brisk walk and listen to podcasts from my favorite Paleo people. They help keep me up to speed on my Paleo knowledge, in addition to making me laugh, and giving me motivation to keep on truckin’ on our Paleo journey. (Oh, and yes, I do get much teasing from my friends and family about what a nerd I am for using my ipod for Paleo podcasts versus listening to music like most people do)

10. Seat cushions (sorry I couldn’t think of a fancier name) I recently ordered them from Therappy Shoppe, and I could do an entire blog post about how when kids are comfortable in their chair during meal time, they eat better! Mealtime is much more pleasant without the wiggling and finding any excuse to get up from their seats.

This worked especially well for Charlotte because she is considered a “sensory seeker” and needs to feel the seat under her to be comfortable.

Stayed tuned for more of my favorite things because as I wrote this, I thought of about 10 more things I could’ve added……hmmm….maybe I’m more materialistic than I thought.

Stress Management for Moms (part 2–Taking Action)

In part one of the series I talked about having an awareness of how our bodies deal with chronic stress and that life’s challenges can force us to check our temperature gauge to see if we need to make any adjustments.

The term regulation became a commonly used word in my family and circle of friends after the sensory related issues with Charlotte were uncovered. My husband and other adults friends of ours felt that we could relate to the dysregulation that we had all seen Charlotte experience. In our world, this looks like an inability to deal with her environment…tantrums, screaming, unable to complete tasks like going potty, getting dressed, following directions, etc. It takes sensory regulation in the form of therapy, sleep, diet, and routine to get her back on track.

We began to use the word liberally and have conversations about what we do as adults to keep ourselves regulated and comfortable in our own environment. Again, having an awareness of our own states of dysregulation and how we adjust leads us to how we ultimately manage our stress. How do you handle stress? What states of mind or activities help you feel your best, or regulated?

What do you know about yourself?

I know that I need to sleep at least 8 hours per night. This is no-brainer, right? It’s important to stop and rethink the importance of sleep. As moms, we push our DVR/to-do list into our children’s sleeping hours all the while pushing our adrenaline up and sleep patterns out of whack. I wouldn’t have survived my adrenal issues if I hadn’t made sleep a priority and let go of any expectations of staying awake past 10pm.

I know that I have the need to spend time away from my kids in order to regulate myself. After the birth of my first daughter, Dana, I struggled with mild PPD until I returned to work part-time. Making space in my brain for my own challenges, relationships, and goals is crucial to my mental health. Blogging anyone?

I know that I need to stay away from sugar, breads, and empty calories. I have always had a fast metabolism and low blood sugar issues. In order to feel comfortable and sleep well, I need to eat higher fat and protein foods that keep me full for longer. I heart bacon.

I know I need exercise but I also know that I get very tired when I exercise too hard. I need to exercise, and I love my routine of walking, yoga, and Pilates. When I recently tried to add a high-intensity hour-long cardio yoga, I was sore and exhausted even after several weeks of classes. Sadly, kicking ass in CrossFit will have to wait.

Are you really tired of being stressed out?..okay, then. Make. Some. Changes.

I’m going to use my teacher voice here with you, beause this is important. You deserve to feel happy/sane/calm/in-control. Find out who you are and what makes you feel good. Take action to regulate yourself.

(Don’t worry, you’re not turning this into anyone….unless you want to…if that’s the case and you’re a SAHM missing your old working-world days, pretend you are going to be asked about your stress level at your Year End Review.)

Here’s what my Taking Action looked like…

I realized that I felt better when I ate Paleo food, I slowly eliminated all of the foods that were making me feel less-than-great. It only takes a few weeks of eating clean food to realize the differences you are making. Lots more on that here, here, and here.

I scheduled my week to attend Pilates and Yoga classes when my kids are at school. I set up a 2-mile walking loop near the center where Charlotte takes therapy. I have learned to respect my body and it’s limits when it comes to exercise.

I communicate my needs (without whining) for having a girls’ night or date night with my husband. I also have a babysitter who watches my kids basically whenever I need her. My time away is crucial. It was important for me to recognize the feelings of anxiety I feel from being smothered by the needs of my kids or trapped in my own home. I let go of the guilt and do what I need to do to feel better. See one of my favorite blogs Momastery for some hilariously-written permission to take time for yourself.

Regulate yourself so you can regulate your children

Our children need us to help regulate them. Even typically-developing children need regulation in the form of routines, consistency, and attention. Special needs children may demand even more effort from their parents for effective regulation. Recognizing your child’s need for regulation is crucial for their development, but recognizing your need for regulation is crucial for your health and well-being.

In Part 3 of the series, I’ll discuss how our thoughts create our stress. It’s all in your head. Really.