Note to self…

This afternoon I came back from the optometrist after having those drops that make your eyes all wonky, and apparently I misjudged where the floor was in the office, because I took a headfirst dive into a book case. (No concussion or anything, just a nice gooseegg.)

As I’m lying on the floor in pain, Little Miss comes over and squats down.  “Mom!  MOM! You’re supposed to WALK. You’re not supposed to FALL!!”

Ah yes, the baton of sarcasm passes to yet another generation. My evil mission is accomplished.

Hair today, gone tomorrow

Men have it easy.

For the most part, they just get the standard short haircut and they’re done.  Sure, they’ve got to fuss a bit with the front–do they want it punky looking and spiked, or sloping gracefully to the side? (We won’t talk about those combing it over. Definite handicap there.)

(And for those wild hearts who still cultivate that 60s’ hippie look, more power to you.  Clearly that choice carries its own issues.)

Women, on the other hand, have a wider range to choose from, and consequently, a bigger headache. Magazines and media urge us to have long, smooth flowing locks that shine like polished silver and drape perfectly when we flip our hair. A couple of decades ago, we were all supposed to have great Farrah Fawcett layers. A few years later, the fluffy spiral curl, a la Julia Roberts, was all the rage. All these styles, if you believe the media, just magically appear from nowhere on your head and stay like that with just the right kind of shampoo or curler, or…

Well, I’ve been waiting 20 years, and I’ve yet to see that “appear.” Ever.

In my teen years, I did grow my hair long and straight–who didn’t? When I started having children, I realized one thing had to go–them, or the time it took to take care of long hair. After what I’d gone through to birth them, I wasn’t ready to toss the children just yet, so the hair lost.

Instructions to the hairdresser go something like this: I have a hair dryer and a comb and three minutes. Make me look fabulous. So I’ve had some version of this haircut for years, except for a few dedicated “Earth-mother” years in the late 90s when I apparently thought that more hair, and redder hair, was the way to go. (I really need a new photo.)

So imagine my excitement when dear Little Miss took the time, after we got home from vacation, to help me do my hair one morning, and announced, “Mom, you cut your hair gray!”

So my hairdresser got a quick visit, and hair life as we know it is safe again. I envy the male lawyers in court, their easy lives and blue suits topped by that same short shear. I’ll keep working on that simple, incredible ‘do, edging ever closer to the Kojak look. No one ever accused him of being gray. No one would have dared.

10 Tips for Taking Your Autistic Child to Disney World

Writers’ Note: This article is printed in the pages above, complete with links, but is reprinted here for the benefit of the search engines. Thanks for your patience.  🙂

1. Know your Child! Then do your homework with a website like www.allears.net or the Disney Moms’ Panel, or books like PassPorter’s Open Mouse for Walt Disney World and the Disney Cruise Line, which examines all the parks and Disney resorts in detail to explain potential trouble spots based on a number of criteria such as noise, wait times, crowded spaces, etc. If you know your child doesn’t like rides with a lot of dark spaces, or enclosed waiting areas where things echo, or the possibility of having to share space with strangers—here’s where you’ll find the answers.

2. If it’s at all possible, visit in February or October. These are the months when Florida residents are encouraged to go, because the crowds are much smaller while the school vacationers aren’t there. We noticed a world of difference between going in June three years ago and going in February this year—most popular rides had about a 20 minute wait, as opposed to 60 or more minutes in the summer.

3. Get a letter signed by your doctor delineating your child’s issues specifically, so you can get a Guest Assistance Card. This is a lifesaver. With a Guest Assistance Card, you often have the ability to enter rides through an alternate entrance, like the Fastpass Returns, keeping the waiting time for your child to a minimum. Here is the text of the letter I used for Little Miss:

To Whom It May Concern:

I am writing concerning Little Miss who has been diagnosed with autism and sensory integration disorder.  These problems cause an inability to stand in crowded spaces, wait for long periods of time without disrupting those around her, and she finds it uncomfortable to wait in places where sounds echo and/or are amplified.

This will severely impact her ability to wait in lines, especially the lines in the interior of buildings where there is music as well as many people talking in an amplified atmosphere.  Please provide an alternative whenever possible that will minimize her sensory overload as well as her waiting time so that she may enjoy the benefits of the Disney experience.


I took the letter to the Guest Relations desk the first day of our visit. Even though on the phone, Disney folk had been pretty cagy about the ability to get a card, as soon as I said “autism” the young woman at the desk smiled and nodded and stamped us on our way. The card allowed all five of us to enter a ride through the alternative entrance, not just the diagnosed child/ren, for our entire stay at Disney. We only used the card once or twice per visit to EPCOT, Disney Hollywood Studios and Animal Kingdom because the lines were fairly short. After all, it is part of life’s lesson that sometimes you have to wait for things. But the Magic Kingdom was not designed to serve so many people at once, and we used it for many rides there. Often we had less than five minutes’ wait, even for the most popular rides. Without this, our children would probably have had to pass on many activities other kids can enjoy.

4. If your child has sensory issues, like ours, and can’t deal with noise, about half of Disney will be painful for them, particularly in the Animal Kingdom and EPCOT, where much of the activity has background narration, which is always very loud. (The worst place was in Rafiki’s Conservation Station at Animal Kingdom, where the restrooms not only have the autoflush toilets that permeate Disney, but ALSO animal sounds–talk about overstimulation!) Fortunately, ours knows how to protect herself and immediately covers her ears when the overhead speakers go on. Consider earplugs or even headphones to block some of the noise.

5. Of the parks, the Magic Kingdom is likely the one that will be most stressful, because it’s built in a much more compact space, making it particularly crowded. Some of the rides based on cartoons (Stitch’s Great Escape, Buzz Lightyear’s Rangers) are very bright, with strobe lighting and loud noises. We found that a visit to Tom Sawyer’s Island helped de-stress a bit as there was a quiet boat ride over and then unstructured play and stim space.

The Animal Kingdom has a similar spot called The Boneyard in Dino-land, where there are slides and caves and tunnels and places to dig in the dirt. At Disney Hollywood Studios, we used the Honey I Shrunk the Kids playground for an oasis in the middle of the day, and EPCOT has several places where there is open space, or where there are water fountains to play with, and even misters, where a soft spray of water can help the sensory child refocus. Little Miss also found a quiet moment between shows at The American Adventure in EPCOT where she had the Rotunda all to herself and could spin to her heart’s content:

Going for a spin

Going for a spin

6. Break up your day. There is way too much to do. Period. You can tell the parents who are trying to survive marathon days because their kids are in exhausted hysterics by evening. Our best schedule was to go to our chosen Park early in the morning, then return to the hotel by noon, taking a break in the pool or just relaxing at the resort till mid-afternoon and then going back.

This is when being a Disney Resort guest really pays off. Not only are the hotels fully staffed with free boat and bus transportation that run every 15 minutes or so to the parks so you don’t have to pay the $12 parking fee per park, but there are Extra Magic Hours each day when the Parks are open to Resort guests only. These occur either from 8-9 a.m. or after the Park closes, as much as four hours extra, where the crowds are much smaller. Note: Not every ride is open during these extra hours, so check with the Park when you arrive to make sure you will not miss something your child’s heart is set on.

7. Be organized without being Commando. Our Aspie son found it comforting to carry a map of each park and plan the day’s activities. He was a little rigid, which made it uncomfortable for the rest of us from time to time, but I think it was a lesson for him in the necessity to be flexible at the same time we learned that he functioned best out of his usual routine and environment if he had a substantial amount of control. Even with seven days in our Disney visit, meaning two days in some of the Parks, we did not see everything. The world did not come to an end. There’s always next time.

8. Take advantage of Fastpasses if you have to go when the park is busy. You pick these up at kiosks at rides through the Park, then come back at the pre-designated time, when you can have near-immediate access to the ride. This way you can spend your time on other activities and not waiting in line. Once you use your Fastpass for one ride, you can come back and get a new one for another ride.

9. Whatever you need, in the hotels, parks, dining areas or anywhere on Disney property, don’t hesitate to find a Disney employee—called “cast members”—and ask. Disney is all about details, and we have never found anyone not willing to go out of their way to make sure your needs are accommodated. See a cast member for best seating for the parades (but be aware they’re noisy!), for special dining arrangements or foods, or even for a card allowing you to classify your stroller a wheelchair so you can take it on rides to contain your active child—usually strollers are required to be left outside ride pavilions and everyone must continue on foot. But ask.

10. Even at Disney, not everything runs as scheduled. Prepare your child with social stories ahead of time on what to do if a ride breaks down, or happens to be closed for rehabilitation. We received a letter three days before we were scheduled to leave that the huge island in the center of our resort, the one the kids had been all excited about, with the slides, etc., was going to be closed the week of our visit. Big letdown! But it was a good starting place for the discussion that sometimes we can’t get on the ride/activity that we want right away, but we can find other rides to make us happy, or we can come back later and try again. Either way, it’s all good.  It’s Disney, after all!  Have a wonderful time!

V-a-c-a-t-i-o-n….

C’mon, you know that chorus! Everyone sing along!

Okay, so some of you aren’t old enough to remember that song. As vacations go, this wasn’t bad at all. No visits to the emergency room, state patrol pull-overs (Yes, B, your Arizona adventure remains alone in the annals of family history!), hardly even a sunburn. Little Miss did go through three pairs of sunglasses, leaving each along the way. There’s a Mickey hoodie left behind at Pensacola, but that will come in the mail. Everything happened on the day it was supposed to happen and no unexpected surprises.

While this is the stuff of parental satisfaction, it does leave something wanting on the Family Story scale. The afore-mentioned traffic stop, where mother saved the day when the Arizona Highway Patrol discovered our darkened headlight, for example (see comment 4). We still talk about that. Or the night in some muddled single-parent state, I let M, at 17, drop me and her young sister at Phantom of the Opera in Toronto while she took B, maybe 14, to find some concert in the eastern suburbs of the city with my car. By themselves. What was I thinking? I was just grateful not to be driving in downtown Toronto, surpassed in crazy driving by maybe only Chicago.

Or the time we picked S up after a custodial visit and her mother sent along a huge purple Barney cake half-wrapped in Saran. I was one of the few in our crowded van of seven who didn’t end up sitting in it at some point. Maybe that was the same year M lost her retainer in a Days Inn pool in Charlotte and while all the girls were diving to the bottom of the pool to help her find it, only poor S came back to the surface with a handful of…poop. (She insists she has yet to stay in a Days Inn again, even some 20 years later.)

But this will be the vacation when Little Miss learned how words on car license plates told you where they came from, or how she learned her way around the Disney resort so she became our navigator, telling us where we got on and off the buses. This was the magic time when the Cabana Boy and Ditto Boy became the roller coaster Mountaineers, traveling together on Space Mountain, Splash Mountain, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad and scariest of all, Expedition Everest (click video if you dare!).

This was also my first visit to M at her house since she grew up. It is odd visiting your grown children, seeing how they do things–differently than you, even. And like I always said when they were kids, “When you have your own house, you can play your music as loud as you want.” Sure, after everything I said, THAT’s what she remembers.

But the one axiom that always applies, is that we need the vacation AFTER the vacation, to get caught up on everything that we missed! I’ll be posting more later in the week, when I can see my desk again. Till then, think warm thoughts!

Several shades of insanity

Seven beautiful sun-filled days at Disney World sounds like heaven, doesn’t it?

Leaving 18 inches of snow behind, gradually shedding outerwear and then long sleeves and then…but wait. It’s…below freezing.  In Orlando, Florida. ?!?!?!?!

Well, in the daytimes it’s 50, which is a good 40 degrees better than home. The Disney resort is lovely, as expected–I’ve got to give it to Disney, they tend to the details and go the extra mile. Always. There is free bus and water taxi transportation to all the Disney locations we want to go to, so we save gas. We have a refrigerator in our room, so we can save money on breakfast and snacks each day.

But…below freezing?  What’s up with that?

Never mind! we declare with a brave sense of adventure, and we head off to the parks for seven glorious days. The first day we hit EPCOT early in the morning, faces shining with excitement, and take care of the Guest Assistance business (more on this in another post) and stay till after dark, tired but happy. Then it’s Animal Kingdom, which is open three extra hours that night, and the next day Disney-Hollywood Studios. By this time, we’ve used the pedometer to see we’re walking from 6-10 MILES per day in the parks, and our tails are dragging a bit.  We’re leaving for the park at noon…and coming back by maybe 7 p.m.

As the week progresses, it FINALLY starts to feel like Florida, and Sunday we run errands in the morning, hang at the pool in the afternoon, and then drop the Cabana Boy off at the Greyhound to ride home alone for his new job; we get to the Magic Kingdom about…7?  and stay till midnight.

What?  We still have one more day?  We have to go to the theme park? Again?

So we  hit the high points of the Animal Kingdom, enjoying them with more enthusiasm as the day goes on, resolving that seven days is too many in a row. A seven-day vacation would have been much better served with A) more warmth and B) five days of park tickets and two days of time off to relax at the pool and take little day trips to explore. So noted.

We’re on our way home, stopping to visit M and the grandkids in Pensacola.  We may get to the beach today if the severe weather doesn’t hit; tomorrow, the Naval Air Museum. Then the weekend drive across half the country back to the snow.

The trip has been a good one, full of growing moments and photo opportunities, and over the next week I’ll post a couple of pages about autism and Disney, and how Ditto Boy got a lightsaber fight with Darth Vader on stage.

The good news, of course, is that spring will now come in a month or so, and we’ve seen the promise of sun.  Think spring!

Tis the Gift to Be Simple

One of the trends in my life lately has been to divest myself of as much “stuff” as I can, to try to de-clutter and clear the air both literally and figuratively. I’ve subscribed to Real Simple magazine, which has many good ideas (as long as you don’t buy more stuff to sort and store the stuff you already have). I’m keeping a firm hold on what I buy new, and I’m giving to my grown children various items of an heirloom nature, to let them enjoy it now and me enjoy the space the giveaway creates.

Another tool I’ve discovered is the book The Power of Less: The Fine Art of Limiting Yourself to the Essential…In Business and In Life, by Leo Babauta (Hyperion Books, 2009). For those of you who don’t know Babauta, he’s the author of the blog Zen Habits, which is one of the top-rated blogs in the world, and also one of my favorite writing blogs, Write to Done.

Babauta says he developed this system to help in his struggle to accomplish personal goals, like quitting smoking. Once he realized he could break the process down into small, steps that were easier to accomplish, he not only gave up cigarettes, he began exercising and running, now competing in marathons; he eliminated his debts and began to save money, he gave up meat and began eating healthier, and finally gave up the day job that kept him from time with his family to develop a work schedule that met his needs and also his desires.

The Power of Less uses many of the techniques he’s discussed in Zen Habits to help people de-stress, cut back, pare down and enjoy life more. He provides advice that is right-on for most people I know today, who are doing too much with not enough, particularly in this era of economic downturn.

A fact of modern life is that we are all pressed to be multi-taskers, handling work and home pressures at the speed of dataflow. Hundreds of emails may cross our desk each day, and with massive layoffs hitting the country, not only will you be asked to do your own work, but likely your former co-workers’ as well. At home, we have to deal with the children, who are being groomed for their own nervous breakdowns by their schedules of practice, sports, friends and other activities, that you have to fit in around your own must-dos while you’re returning phone calls as you’re driving them to the field.

Babauta says, however, that multi-tasking is not to way to success. It is “less efficient, due to the need to switch gears for each new task and then switch back again…more complicated, leaving you more prone to stress and errors, and … crazy-making.”

Instead, he says, there are two basic steps to making your life actually livable: 1) Identify the essential. 2) Eliminate the rest.

They key to making this system work is to simplify your approach, he says, using a Zen motif. Live in the present. Do what you’re doing now to the fullest. Don’t divert your attention to a dozen things at once—you won’t do any of them justice AND you’ll be stressed to the max. Choose what’s most important and complete it first, then move on to the next task. Put those that can be on the back burner on the back burner for another day. Each day, you’ll be focused on what you have accomplished instead of all you haven’t finished.

The book goes step by step through the process of making those two points above apply to your life. Babauta shows you why you should set limits: “A life without limits is taking a cup of red dye and pouring it into the ocean.” Then he tells you how. Once you have taken out the extraneous, then you can focus on what’s really important to you, and handle your choices in small steps, completing tasks one at a time so that you really achieve success.

The Power of Less isn’t just another self-help book to clutter your time and mind. It’s a real guide, backed up by ongoing support through the forum at the Zen Habits website so that you can work, cheered on by others, as you set and achieve your goals.

Babauta is so convinced that his program works, he says, that if you approach your boss with this new success scheme in hand, and explain that you will get your work done, but you may be going about it differently than he’s used to, and your boss doesn’t like it, then share the book with him. If that doesn’t work, share the website. If that doesn’t appease him, Babauta says, “(G)ive him my email address. I’ll talk to him.”

You can buy The Power of Less at amazon.com and other major booksellers. There’s a link for the book at Zen Habits, along with a lot of other good content. (Babauta has blatantly waived his copyrights to much of his material in an interesting move explained here.) Start simplifying today for a healthier and happier tomorrow.