Neuroplasticity and the human brain in action

Posts tagged ‘Neurotypical Child’

Nutrition Burnout and Recovery, Days 5-11

I knew it would be tough to completely change our eating habits. It was clear from Day 1 (see earlier post) that we are dealing with lifelong, deep-seated stuff here. Every time I’ve sat down to blog about this last week, I’ve been blocked. It was hard to feel anything but discouragement as I looked back at the end of the day, and saw only what looked like failure to me. I’m glad I waited to write it all down, because I think what we were seeing was probably the normal stress that comes when you undertake this kind of major dietary shift.  I’m thinking a bit more clearly now, after having seen good progress in making the transition. The only question remains, how to construct the narrative, without too much negativity, while at the same time describing a reality-based picture of our experiences this week. I will go with unadulterated honesty first, and try to work in the hopeful elements where possible.

One of the conditions that had to exist for our family to be able to dive into an intense program like this was that my mental health had to be at a place where I could stay present for the kids, and carry out the demands of home programming without going into full retreat and isolation mode. Since the day I became pregnant with our first child (Dash), depression has been a part of my life. For as long as I was either breastfeeding a child, or expecting one, my brain chemistry would be out of whack. This means that for the first 10-12 years of our marriage, I was an emotional mess. When our youngest turned three, I began to feel like myself again. It is a touch disturbing to acknowledge that my good husband has seen the whacked-out “me” much more often in our life together, than he has the real me. Thankfully he stuck around anyway, reaching out to my alternating selves, with unfailing love and patient devotion.

Here is a picture of me when I was a small girl. I don’t remember the year, but it is in the mid-to-late 70’s. I’ve always loved this photo, perhaps sensing when I view it, that this represents the real Rebecca. She is a very happy girl, insatiably curious, and a bundle of intense energy. I’ve had to re-introduce myself to her from time to time, but she never fails to make me smile, inspiring me with grateful remembrance. That girl can do anything she puts her mind to, and guess what? It’s still true, 30+ years later. Often when I look into the sweet faces of my own five babies, I see a little bit of that cute Becca. In Big B’s case, I see a lot of her.

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Me, at approximately age 4.

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(Courtesy Angela Marie Photography, 2012)

Left to Right: Sparkle(8), Freckles(10), Big B(5), Daddy, Mommy, Baby Blues(3), Dash(12)

Brain Balance requires all of their clients to commit to eating a very specific diet, which for the average American, means a big change. In short, we now eat no gluten, no dairy, no soy, no refined flours or sugars, no MSG, artificial dyes, additives, nitrates, and only occasional raw sweeteners in very small amounts, limited to: honey, stevia, 100% unrefined maple syrup, agave, organic coconut sugar, or molasses. It’s not as restrictive as say, the Paleo Diet, but Paleo fits within the scope of what we can eat. So I refer to their resources quite a bit. One such excellent blog is authored by a family friend, and could be helpful to anyone who is serious about Paleo. We decided at the outset that any diet and exercise changes that Dash and Big B had to adopt, the rest of the family would also sign on to it. I had a few dishes planned, but no snacks for in-between meals. I figured yeah, they know how to eat carrots, apples and almond butter. But wow, I was SO off. They rifled endlessly through the kitchen cupboards and refrigerator, wondering what they could possibly eat that they were familiar with. The compulsive rifling persisted throughout the week, almost as if they believed the next time they checked, their old foods might have found their way back to them.  They did know how to eat carrots or broccoli, yes, but only last week it had always been dipped in Ranch dressing! Where was the Ranch? It was no more! And of course I couldn’t send them to friends to play in this state, they’d only find our OLD Ranch bottle in THEIR fridge, and then complete melt down would be assured.

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So here we found ourselves, on Day 5. We had by this time made a trip to the farmer’s market and to a local grocery store to purchase a variety of new staple supplies, like coconut oil, coconut sugar, coconut flour, almond butter, GF/DF/sugar-free pancake mixes, Easy Life chocolate chips, more produce, almond milk, rice milk, and cage free eggs. We got ourselves through the weekend alright, thanks to Dad’s skills at making a mean Curry Chicken over Rice, which the kids have eaten and loved for years. But by Monday Dad was back at work, and Mom was up. I had laid out a menu plan which I thought would work fine. And it did work fine for me. I love my Brazilian Beans and Rice, and could eat it every day, no problem. But my kids were tired of it. We’d eaten it at least a couple of times since Day 1. On this Day 5, Sparkle was visibly wilting, having NOT found anything she could bear to consume. Admittedly, I saw this coming with her, but did not prepare well enough. She is a stubborn girl, and can dig her heels in for days if she wants, depending on the issue of conflict. She was pale, and kept filling up her water bottle with her tried and true lemon juice, honey, and ice water, to get her through the hours. Absolutely nothing was left in the kitchen that she liked. And honestly we did throw out 99% of her diet with this change. What saved her from complete starvation here was a tuna sandwich on GF/DF/SF bread from Eleanor’s Bakery.

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Sparkle, Age 4

As I was saying, my mental health had to be in a decent place before we could benefit from a Brain Balance program. I felt when we started that we were in the right place and time to move forward. But this last week, I seriously questioned whether I could really do it. I lost sight of Becca, the real me, the do everything girl. Depression for me has always been greatly aggravated by low blood sugar levels. The first impulse is always to sequester myself in my room, and put the kids in front of some screen. (Oh, and did I mention that the BB program also requests you limit your kids to no more than 30 minutes of screen time per day? That doesn’t seem unreasonable, until you as the mom are spiraling down into retreat, and you need a buffer to keep the kids out of trouble. And yes, neurobehaviors of an atypical child left to his own devices will inevitably lead to trouble!) When we filled up and delivered those four boxes of dry goods and two bags of dairy products to our neighbor, we said goodbye to foods that represented perhaps 60-70% of our habitual diet. So things got BAD, and FAST. Not helpful was the fact that this week at my husband’s workplace was especially demanding on him. They’d flown in a whole contingent of analysts from a market research firm which looks to be merging with his company here soon. He was not able to come home before 9pm on virtually every night of this week.

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(Not my Photo)

As Day 5 passed in utter hellish frustration, we moved through the subsequent days of this week as if we were “walking in molasses” to borrow a phrase from a local author. We were all hungry, as Plan A menus became Plan Bs, only to be rejected. And I had no Plan C. My Plans A or B, only a week prior to this, had been jumping in the car and running to Little Caesar’s or Iceberg. So yes, we had many a mile to go, and it seemed as if we only moved forward by inches. This post isn’t dedicated to how we are doing on the home exercises. But our performance there (indeed, our performance in virtually ALL other essentials) was invariably influenced by our limping along nutritionally. We managed to fit in two exercise sessions per day on all of these days but Day 8, which I will mention later. During this time, what we did eat was 98% in compliance with the parameters outlined by Brain Balance South Jordan. The only problem is that it wasn’t enough. We languished. Day 6 was a little better food-wise, but in terms of meltdowns from Big B, he was just getting started. I was told that setbacks and reversals in behavior were to be expected, as we move through the program and make the necessary adjustments. But I seriously wondered if what I was seeing could possibly be in the norm. Have I given you enough of reality yet? I’ll move on now to some of the good things that happened this last week, shall I?

Day 7 started out very badly. Freckles and Sparkle had come down with bad head and chest colds, and all the kids were dying to get out of the house. So we packed us up, and headed to the zoo as quick as we could get there. Unfortunately by the time we’d made the 30-minute journey, Sparkle had gotten worse. We sat on a bench inside the zoo for 45 minutes, while Dash, Freckles and Big B walked around some of the nearby exhibits. At this point I was so desperate to get my daughter to eat a clementine, I bought a rice crispy treat from the nearby bistro to help coax her along. I also bought water and a big veggie cup that had Ranch dressing in it. She seemed almost to the point of nausea, and I felt that it was most likely because she simply wasn’t eating. I made a deal with her that for each bite of clementine (a fruit she’d heretofore rarely eaten, despite countless opportunities) that she took and swallowed, I would give her a bite of the rice crispy treat. This she attempted, with an appearance of true illness (and a touch of martyr), but unsuccessfully. She managed to swallow one wedge, but then threw up the second one. I thought maybe she should eat the veggies first, to get her tummy to a better place before attempting the oranges again. So I just gave it to her, Ranch and all, with an order that she eat as much as possible. Post-veggie consumption, she still could not manage the clementine, so I gave up at that point, gave her the rice crispy treat, and told her to eat it so she wouldn’t faint on the way back to the van.

Oh, but I was going to move on to the good stuff, sorry!! Did I mention that we just harvested two of our peach trees , one of the big ones and one of the baby ones? They are beautiful, and we are benefitting from the fresh fruit daily. Our garden is producing endless zucchini in all sizes, gorgeous tomatos, tomatillos, cucumbers, peas, eggplant and beans. Our pear tree is nearing harvest time, I think. The color is looking rosier, and I think pears don’t soften on the tree. So we will bring some of those in soon and watch. For this fresh and free organic food, I am daily grateful. Sparkle has yet to avail herself of this resource, but I have hope for her. Sooner or later, she will pick something up and take a bite. I recently read in a book called French Kids Eat Everything that it takes a minimum of 7-10 introductions to a new food for a child to decide they will like/eat it (great book, I highly recommend it!).

The night of Day 7, we went to the Summer Party for my husband’s company. It is always lots of fun, and they always have good food. Michael asked the organizer if there would be any food there that would be compatible with our new dietary regime, and was informed that there would be. So our dinner consisted of cut up fresh fruits, green salad with a vinaigrette dressing, corn on the cob with no butter, and grilled roast beef. The kids didn’t stay long at the picnic table, because there was a huge inflated water slide that had been set up for all the children of employees. Miraculously, Sparkle and Freckles recovered long enough to enjoy the water play for the residue of the event ;). And an extra tender mercy from God, I met one of his co-workers from New Jersey, who has two kids with Autism/Aspergers. I talked his ear off for at least 20 minutes, and discovered that his family is going through a similar experience to ours.  They are enrolled in a program out of Princeton University, which also includes intense home programming every day. That helped to lift my flagging spirits. Also on this day, or perhaps the next, I don’t remember, a friend from my neighborhood called me out of the blue, who happened to have just gone through the process of taking her family off of gluten. She had some good recipe ideas for me, and checked in again Sunday (Day 11) to see  how it was going. More tender mercies from God.

I did not expect to see much in the way of sickness next day, but such was not to be. Since I’m moving on from the negative here, I’ll just say briefly that their symptoms got worse as the week progressed, and other family members caught the germ as well. On Day 8, I had contracted a full-blown version of it, and decided to take the day off from exercises. At this point we threw the media limitation out the window, because I seriously couldn’t bring myself to get out of bed for a sizeable chunk of the day. So they got some Netflix and Minecraft time. Bright spot for the kids, no?

On Day 9, Daddy came home a little bit earlier. It was Friday by now, and we managed to get in two sets of home programming exercises. Unfortunately, Daddy had also caught the bug, and would require the rest of the weekend to rest and recuperate. However on the bright side, I was able to re-up our Costco membership, and purchased a good amount of ingredients I’d been lacking previously, to avail myself of some excellent recipes. I found two great recipe books online for my Kindle App. Both were written by fabulous moms, who had spent the time experimenting until they found what worked well for their families. My friend Heidi wrote one of them, and I can attest that her GF/DF/SF brownie recipe is really tasty. By Day 10, I was starting to feel better, and knew that the worst was behind me. Sparkle still struggles to find foods she wants to eat. But we are slowly finding things that she will choose to eat. With more tools and supplies at my disposal, we will be able to eat a broader variety of foods. With some great recipes on hand (can’t wait to try the substitute Ranch dressing recipe in the Brain Balance binder!), we won’t have to struggle so much to get our kids eating what we prepare.

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My friend Heidi’s Gluten Free Cookbook

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Another great cook book

I am feeling stronger, and the healthier foods seem to be clearing up some of my brain fog. I’ve lost about five pounds, and it seems to be a trend. Big B looks trimmer to me. Still chubby, but uniformly trimmer than before. The frequent home exercises for strengthening the back and spine and core muscles have helped me a lot. I’ve always had a lower back that is prone to fatigue and aching. But no more, thanks to the home program. I can do sit ups again, which I hadn’t done in I don’t know how long! I can do push-ups better than before, and I am seeing our kids making similar improvements. Big B initially had a hard time even forming himself into the right shapes for the daily exercises, but he now can do most of them without help. Freckles went from not being able to do even one sit-up on his own, to doing 75 sit-ups in three sets last night. Dash has mastered the exercise routine very quickly, and seems happier. Last night when I was  helping Big B change his shorts, he actually stood up and balanced on one leg. This has never happened before. He has always leaned heavily with his body on Daddy or me, when he had to change clothing. So we are seeing small improvements day by day. Thanks, if you read all the way to the end!! I expect the next post will be a bit more positive. I suppose to enjoy the great things, we must also acknowledge and appreciate the not-so-great.  Please share if you feel someone else could benefit from my experience.

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A Little History

Have you ever seen one of those moms at the grocery store? You know, the harried one. She has tired eyes, and wears old worn-out yoga pants. Her husband’s polo shirt falls well below her generous hips, and her flip-flops plod along resignedly. Her non-descript hair is pulled back in a sloppy ponytail and she wears not a trace of make-up or accessories. She’s got (at least two) loud kids who are so excited to go to the grocery store that they can’t stop clamoring for her to buy this or that, holding up traffic on all sides, while their pleas fall on deaf ears. When she addresses the little cherubs, it is in clipped and stern tones. In Utah, to their credit, people are pretty understanding. We do live in the land of big happy families. But there are times that even the politest of onlookers can’t disguise their irritation or pity as they survey the chaotic space we inhabit. This has been me for many years. I only take the kids to shop with me when I have no other choice. Why? We are a walking circus. My kids are also beautful, funny, irreplaceable treasures in my life. And I love them dearly. But not at the grocery store, not at this phase of our development.

Which brings me to the purpose of this blog. Our development. It’s a vague word, development, defined by many things. One would think I know something about it, since I have an Associate’s degree in Child Study. It might seem unfortunate or lamentable to an outsider that it has taken my husband and I many years to figure out how to address our children’s development issues comprehensively. Our first child was born 13 years ago, and he had issues right from the get go. We didn’t know what was going on with him at the time, but I was absolutely certain that I’d never — in my 27 years of life, and my 15 years of child care giving experience with hundreds of children, normal and atypical — ever known a child who exhibited more continuous physical energy and mental/emotional intensity than this, my firstborn did. Stephen came straight from heaven that way, fiery spirit and old eyes. But I couldn’t figure out why he was different, or explain it to others. We knew for sure he had something going on, when in the first short months of kindergarten he was shutting down emotionally, begging us daily not to make him go back. We decided at the time to ditch public school and homeschool him instead. I’ve never regretted that.

It wasn’t until his younger brother Benjamin came along however, that we started putting the pieces together. By the time we saw that he had developmental issues, we were a decade into raising kids, and American brain researchers had made vital advances toward understanding neurologically atypical children. We have five kids. Stephen (whom I will refer to in this blog as Dash) and Benjamin (Big B) are the first and fourth in the birth order, respectively. Last Fall, when B started kindergarten, I felt a strong sense of deja-vu. By Christmas I seriously doubted my choice to leave him at the school at all. But the school is great, and he loved his teacher. We decided in February that the cost was too high for us to keep the kids in school, and so we returned to schooling at home. Thankfully, the availability of online and conventional education resources and an increase of homeschooling families generally, has made this a Golden Age for alternative education in America. The parallels between Dash and Big B’s issues are striking. However it is clear that B is dealing with a more severe set of developmental challenges than Dash has had. Behaviorally, this last Spring and Summer have been exceptionally difficult for Big B. We became so concerned about him that we decided a fast was in order.

As a  primer here, I should note that we are Mormons. Fasting is a monthly practice for us. On the last Saturday of each month, we reflect on our relationship with God, and begin a ritual that lasts for approximately 24 hours. We finish dinner on this night with a prayer to God that marks the beginning of our fast. We skip the next two meals, and donate the money we’d spend on those meals to the church as a fast offering to help others locally who are in need of assistance. We feel that this practice allows us to lay aside our bodily appetites and focus more intensely on our relationship with Heavenly Father. We decide on a purpose for our fast. And we pray often throughout the day over that purpose. Each person/family’s purpose is different. One month we may fast and pray about a loved one who is struggling. Another time we may ask God’s help with a special challenge we are facing. You get the idea.

In May of this year, we determined that Big B would be the focus of our fasting petitions to God. I longed for clarity over what we should best do to help him. I’d been concerned over his development before, but at this point, his distress had become acute. He was so frustrated with his inability to be still, for example. When it was time for us to sit down and read aloud with the kids from a chapter book, he would cry because he couldn’t sit and listen. It was painful for him to attempt it. A child whose motor never stilled, whose restlessness never relented. This ADHD-like behavior impeded his progress in learning his ABC’s. And he had other issues which baffled me: he couldn’t hold the pencil well enough to write almost at all, even after months of practicing. He seemed always to need sensory input, compulsively reaching under my shirt or his dad’s, to stroke our bellies while sucking his thumb. He seems always to be out of balance physically, leaning on others to help him button a shirt or put on his socks. All of our concerns can’t be listed here, but I knew we needed extra help and guidance to meet his special needs.

Within days after my fast, I began to see my prayers being answered in unmistakeable ways. My neighbor over the fence announced suddenly that she and her family were moving to California within a  month, and would be renting their house for a year. The woman (I’ll call her Leilani) who would be bringing her family from Hawaii to rent the home was an Autism specialist. For many years I wondered if Big B and Dash both suffered from some type of Autism Spectrum disorder, like Aspergers. At the very least, I suspected sensory integration issues which sometimes looked like Autism, from what I could tell. When this woman moved into the home over the fence in early June, we became instant friends. We’ve had numerous conversations about Autism in the context of the symptoms I saw in my kids. At one point I told her something about Dash, I think it was about his ability to “push my buttons” in a conflict. She said that wasn’t an awareness that an Autistic/Aspergers child normally possesses. And for the first time ever, I heard a plausible explanation for B’s odd tummy-stroking behavior. She told me it was definitely a sensory issue, and that he needed an expanded “sensory diet” to be able to help him out. No doctor or professional I had asked, until that point, could give me any insight about why a 6-year-old would exhibit this behavior. I’d get a blank stare at best, and at worst, a suggestion that I just wasn’t “teaching him appropriate boundaries.” This new friendship with Leilani was the first answer to my prayers.

And then almost two weeks ago, I discovered that a new Brain Balance Center had just opened up, literally around the corner in South Jordan, and they were having an informational presentation that very night.  The methodology of these learning centers for developmentally challenged kids is based on Robert Melillo’s theory and research about the two hemispheres of the brain. I had read his book “Disconnected Kids” back in 2009, and found myself nodding in agreement all throughout my reading. It seemed to pinpoint a lot of behaviors I had seen in my family, and explained so much. At that time there were no Brain Balance centers near our home, but I thought to myself, “how wonderful would it be?” Now that a center had presented itself, I asked my husband if he would come with me to the info meeting. I was so relieved when he came, and I saw him nodding his head in unison with me throughout the discussion. The presenter was a mom of three kids, two of them on the Autistic spectrum, who described the continual frustration she’d felt in trying to figure out how to help her kids connect the dots in a variety of situations.

We went home from the presentation fully intending to have Dash and Big B assessed, but had no idea how we would be able to pay for them to participate in the program. But after discussing it at length, and tuning in to how we might pursue this course of action, we began to feel strongly that God had led us to this place, and would provide the way for us to accomplish it. I have to quote a scripture here, which I have come to know absolutely as true in my life. It is from the Book of Mormon, and it is spoken by Nephi, son of Lehi, a prophet that left Jerusalem during the time of Jeremiah:

“And it came to pass that I, Nephi, said unto my father: I will go and do the things which the Lord hath commanded, for I know that the Lord giveth no commandments unto the children of men, save he shall prepare a way for them that they may accomplish the thing which he commandeth them.”

Now it is clear that our deciding to enroll in the Brain Balance center wouldn’t be seen as a “commandment” from God, in the traditional sense. However, we felt strongly that the Lord had led us to this juncture, and kindly let us know that it was time to act, and to change our course, for Dash and (especially) Big B’s benefit. This being the case, there was nothing to do but say “Ok, let’s do it.” So we proceeded to enroll, found financing, and began. Now after having started, we are seeing on the horizon new ways that we will be able to find the cash to pay off the loan we agreed to. This is another unexpected blessing.

Now this post is already long, so I will stop here and say that on Day 3 now of this intense program, we are all feeling better physically and mentally, due to the daily exercises and diet changes that this program has imposed on our family. I’ll go into more detail in the next post. This is my introduction and explanation for this newly-created blog. I hope to document our entire journey as it happens, so that someone else who may be at the beginning of their own journey will find support and validation. Before I close, here is one more link, belonging to the presenter of whom I spoke, the mother of three. She wisely took up her digital pen, and documented their miraculous journey through the Brain Balance program, and now blesses others in like manner.

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