Archive for the ‘Autism’ Category

A relative stitch in time

March 11, 2018


Some believe Albert Einstein was autistic, but regardless we can all agree he formed the Theory of Relativity, which has been extended to the notion that “time is relative.” This is somewhat timely as we change our clocks ahead this weekend.

Especially for The Blur, who is obsessed with clocks and certain times. What time is lunch? What time did you have lunch? What time are we getting there? What time are we leaving? Time also takes on a certain relativity when he runs a stopwatch during his cross-country or track practices.

Despite this obsession for time and at what time he expects certain things to happen, he has very little actual concept of time. Budgeting time to accomplish certain tasks is particularly challenging — like getting to the school bus on time, for example. It’s a form of discalculia.

For more than a year, Harrison has been collecting clocks of various types. He buys some of them. He also randomly just asks people if he can have the clocks off their walls. You’d be surprised by how many clocks he has from the walls of local establishments and homes.

A few months ago he became fascinated with the idea of time zones, and that time is not the same everywhere in the world. This culminated in his building a “clock room,” where he has at last count 23 clocks set to various time zones.

Despite his obsession with electronic devices, all his clocks are analog and not digital, though some are atomic.

As daylight saving time arrived this weekend, this became a real exercise in time management as he needed to reset many of these clocks for the change on or about 2 a.m. Sunday. There was even a discussion about staying up to “watch” the time change. In doing so we both learned that there are 40 time zones around the world, and not all observe daylight savings.

While he was insistent on trying to change all the clocks before going to bed on Saturday night, I, being older and wiser, had the idea he could just wait until morning and ask Siri what time it is in each locale.

Time is relative, indeed.

One more step in the long run

February 25, 2018


Many thanks to Regan Foster of The Pueblo Chieftain for so thoughtfully and skillfully presenting our ongoing struggle in trying to get Harrison some behavioral help. It is truly the story of a healthcare and mental-health system that is entirely broken and does not serve those in need.

Regan’s story will be Exhibit A for our appointment with an administrative law judge on March 21 to appeal a decision by the state to deny Harrison a Children’s Extended Services (CES) waiver for Medicaid. He was denied basically because his sleep habits, though not great, are not entirely horrible. Even if our appeal is upheld, the victory would be meaningless, as CES will not cover behavioral services beyond June.

Meanwhile, our insurance company, Cigna, after first denying that they cover ABA therapy in 2017 (and also erroneously denying we ever called), has changed its policy as of Jan. 1. Now they do “cover” behavioral therapy — with a $3,000 deductible and a 30 percent co-pay — which is the same as not having insurance at all except that we’re paying for this privilege.

As a side note it’s difficult for me to hear myself saying “But he’s never hurt anybody” when I know he left me with a nearly paralyzed arm and shoulder for about two months in 2013-14, and has nearly knocked me out with head-butts. I also have seen the bruises of others who love him, including Mary, and his teachers and aides, so I must have intended something else when I said that. Maybe he’s never “intentionally” hurt anybody would be more accurate.

Most of you know I’ve been writing extensively about this topic of autism parenting for years in my columns, blog, books and on Facebook, but it was fun to hand this ball off to Regan and see someone else’s perspective. GO READ it here.

The puzzle of dyscalculia

January 21, 2018

I have to thank fellow blogger Neurodivergent Rebel for cluing me in to a term for something I’ve experienced several times but had no word to describe.

That term is “dyscalculia.” I can now add this to my son Harrison’s spectrum of neurodiversities that also include autism, ADHD, OCD and probably Tourette Syndrome.

While I don’t find labels particularly helpful, I do find it useful to have a term for something I’ve witnessed over and over. Somehow, knowing this term helps me to better understand this neurological difference.

Dyscalculia is largely thought of as difficulty with mathematics, typically the basics of addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. But it can also have implications in calculating time, sequence, spatial awareness, distances and speed.




I believe I first noticed this with Harrison having problems changing clothes. He would sometimes get things out of sequence. For example, in the course of getting dressed for school, he might take off the fresh shirt he’d just put on when the next step was to put on his socks. Or he might take off his shoes when I’ve asked him to put on his jacket. I’ve seen dozens of versions of this over the years but never had a word to describe it.

Another example of Harrison’s dyscalculia is in relation to time. Despite his obsession with clocks and certain points of time, like lunch time, his concept of time as a continuum and ongoing sequence, particularly as it pertains to tasks that must be accomplished within a certain timeframe can be . . . well, warped.

It also may explain his uncanny ability to learn music through sound rather than notes on sheets. It could also explain why he can run forever without tiring.

While getting things out of order while getting dressed can be comic, and learning music by sound is genius, dyscalculia can also manifest in situations that are dangerous. It’s a concern with higher-speed activities that may involve other moving objects or vehicles, such as with cycling or even running. Before I had a word to describe dyscalculia, I wrote about this experience in my book “Endurance.” Here’s the excerpt about an incident following cross-country practice last year when Harrison insisted on crossing the highway on his own.


“ . . . When we got back to the car Harrison now wanted to cross the highway “unsupervised” but I insisted I had to be there. He objected mightily to this but I refused to give in. So we walked over to the highway, about 50 yards from where we’d parked the cars. He looked carefully both ways, waited for a car to pass, then ran across. Then he turned around and crossed back over. He crossed it again and looked both ways. 

There was a UPS truck and two cars coming from the west. I watched him and he watched the UPS truck go by. Then he waited for the second car. Then, just as the third vehicle was approaching, he started to take off. 

I couldn’t believe what was about to happen. I was right on the edge of the white line. There was no way I could jump out there in time so I yelled sternly: “NO- NO-NO!!!!” He looked up at me and I could see the gears turning. I briefly had the thought he might just keep running out of defiance. 

But he pulled up. 

The car passed between us at about 65 mph. Never even slowed down. 

There was no time for an adrenaline rush before Harrison completely flipped out and came barreling across the highway at me. He slapped, scratched and hit at me and spit on the ground, shrieking and yelling the entire time. His teammates who had finished their workouts stood watching all this. At last he calmed enough that I was able to get him back to the car and drive away. 

After he had settled down. I asked him about what had happened there. Did he not see the third car? He answered in a painful voice that, yes, he did see it. So then I asked why, if he saw it, had he started to run anyway? He answered that he did not know why. The only thing that I could guess is that some confusion in sensory-processing system — sound, sight and movement — had overwhelmed his motor skills and sense of executive function. Thankfully, the life force had over- ridden all of this.”


I can now chalk this experience up to dyscalculia, and add it to the complex spectrum that governs the way Harrison processes and reacts to information from the world around him.


Everyone loves a parade

December 13, 2017



Doesn’t everyone kick off the holiday season by turning their autistic teen loose with an 800-pound donkey on a busy street with hundreds of Christmas revelers and dozens of prancing ponies?

A few years ago after attending Buena Vista’s Christmas Equine Parade I got the idea for something similar here in Westcliffe. Now three years later it’s become somewhat of a tradition.

That first year Harrison and I had the only four-legged animal in the Custer County Christmas Parade of Lights, along with some motorized entries, a marching band and the high-school cheer team. The idea caught on, however, and the following year several other equine entries joined us.

I love the Christmas parade. After so many years of racing on the pack-burro circuit it’s refreshing to do something non-competitive with the animals and in the spirit of the season. We decorate the burros with garlands, bells and lights for this event. One difference between our parade and the one in Buena Vista is that ours is held after nightfall.

There had been some concerns after last year about the Amish Percheron team spooking some of the other animals. The Percherons are big and really loud and imposing. They stamp in place with their bells and huge steel shoes. So it was decided prior to the parade that they would come in from a side road at the Country Store as entry No. 8. Harrison and I — as No. 9 — would stop and let them in ahead of us.

The parade began with all the entries falling in line. When we got to the Country Store I told Harrison to stop. An Amish woman was holding onto the big horses and she let them loose. But instead of going right out onto the road in front of us, they started forward, then turned to their right — behind us — around the gas pumps at the store, and around to the driveway.  This spooked Boogie and Laredo badly. I managed to keep Boogie under control but Laredo pulled the rope right out of Harrison’s hands and bolted.

He took off at a full gallop through this big field across from the store. Boogie wanted to go with him but I circled her around. The Amish wagon pulled out of the driveway and onto the road in front of us. I watched as the blue LED lights on Laredo’s saddle got smaller and smaller in the distance, and then disappeared.

Luckily right then the entire parade stopped. I quickly reviewed the options. Should I bail on the whole thing? Should I chase after Laredo, and then if I managed to catch him try to bring up the rear? Should we just continue on with Boogie, then come back for Laredo afterward? I stood there looking off into the darkness and tried to make a decision.

That’s when I saw the blue lights bouncing way off in the distance. I watched and they appeared to be getting closer. I could see Laredo returning at a canter. Soon his shape was visible in the dim street lights. By the time the parade started moving he was right there. I caught him and handed the lead rope back to Harrison and on we went!

At first there were very few spectators, and then we encountered sparse crowds. It’s difficult to recognize people because of the lighting but occasionally I’d hear people yell out our names. Mostly they were encouraging Harrison.

By the time we reached Westcliffe’s Downtown area, which is all of about two blocks, we were illuminated by street lamps and Christmas lights. So many people offered beautiful comments about the animals and called out to Harrison.

For a few fleeting moments in this tiny parade an overwhelming and unexpected feeling of joy and sense of community overcame me. I couldn’t contain the big smile and my eyes welled up with emotion.

Co-creating authentic experiences is hard work, but somebody has to do it.


Reset at the track

December 10, 2017

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It was one of those mornings when the whole world, at least the one we live in, needed a reset. The only remedy I could think of was to head to the track.

For the past two seasons Harrison has run the 400 and the 800. Now he’s interested in the 1600 — a sort of a double-edged sword. We know from cross-country that he does better at longer distances, but in track there’s the monotony of going around in circles four times and the opportunity for distraction is greater.

With the spring track season just around the corner we’ve started to mix some practice track sessions with his off-season training program, which also includes trail runs, hikes and cycling.

Neurodiversity is more than just autism. It also includes things like obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), sensory integration disorder and Tourette Syndrome. In Harrison’s case he is diagnosed with autism and ADHD, but he also has some sensory issues and blurts out random thoughts often unrelated to the task at hand.

The track at Custer County school, at about 8,000 feet elevation, is surfaced with uneven sand and gravel, and overgrown with grass and weeds. It’s also a quarter-mile track rather than the metric standard 400-meters.

We’re obviously not going to run any world records here, but it’s good-enough practice for the meets which are held on some pretty nice tracks around the region.

I typically draw a line in the gravel to illustrate the “waterfall”-style start that the longer track events have. Then we do a mock start just like it’s real thing. I typically run along to encourage and help him develop a sense of pacing.

We ran a warmup loop, then some strides.

After getting a really good start, he started scratching his legs on the first curve, and then freaking out over this. It’s sensory issue he developed back during cross-country season.

Due to this sensory problem he lost his focus. He weaved back and forth, on and off the track, jogging with a discombobulated gait. I swear anyone could have walked that lap backward faster.

Then it was OCD time, as he started obsessing over what time it was, and particularly in relation to lunchtime.  We had to check the watch several times as I assured him there was plenty of time to run a 1600 and still get lunch by noon.

It took him a whopping 5 minutes to do that first lap, then he veered over to the car. I told him we should just go home and forget it. That’s when autism tantrum time kicked in. He started acting out, yelling, swinging and grabbing at me, pulling on my shirt.

Somehow in all this he decided to give it another try. So we returned to our line in the sand and started all over. This time he still had problems with the sensory stuff (itching) and focus, and blurting out random thoughts about electronic devices and phone numbers. But he did it. It was his slowest 1600 ever, but afterward he seemed like a different person, almost like we’d pushed the reset button.

I was not thrilled with his 11-minute mile. I think he’s quite capable of running under 7 minutes even on this track at this altitude. But instead of focusing on this I realized everything he’d pushed through — the mental-emotional equivalent to a Spartan obstacle course.

So I praised him for his Herculean effort. We jogged another quarter for a cool-down and then headed for lunch.

He promised to do better next time.

A perfect season

December 2, 2017



It was one of those awkward encounters. A casual acquaintance threw out a random statement and it made me think.

In this case it was in a grocery store and the statement was essentially that there’s such a gap in this country, everything from homeless people “doing nothing” begging in the streets and living under bridges, all the way up to Bill Gates.

This seemed interesting to me because it is believed that a high percentage of homeless people may be autistic, and it’s also been speculated that Bill Gates may be on the spectrum.

My answer to this was that yes, we sure do have a gap and I’m not sure people at one end are doing more than people at the other. This brought a look of total surprise, and the response that “I think Bill Gates does a lot” and that he does so much philanthropy.

I said Bill Gates probably does appear to do a lot because he is wealthy enough to have people do a lot of things for him. In fact a close friend received her Masters in Library Science from Denver University through a scholarship from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, though I‘m fairly certain the benefactors did not personally sign the check.

But homeless people do a lot, too – they have to scrounge for food, and yes, often alcohol and drugs, find places to sleep, worry about their safety and try to stay warm in the winter.

This exchange stuck with me for some time. Does anyone really do a great deal more or less than anyone else? Or is there a value system we place on certain activities? Especially those things we call “work.”

What is work, anyway? We typically equate it to generating income. The implication is that with an income we can contribute to the “economy.” We suck on the jugular and the blood keeps flowing. While this is actually the same ideology as a tick or a leech, we somehow buy into the myth that, in my case editing, or for other such things as pushing papers around a desk at an insurance agency or real estate office is somehow more honorable than standing by the roadside with fiction written on a sign and holding out your hand.

Lately I’ve been feeling like I do a lot. Aside from writing this column, I edit a website and also caretake a small ranch. Compensation for the former is so much less than the latter that it actually costs me to write. I do it anyway because I feel that I have something worthwhile to say. Yet, somehow it does not make me feel exactly like Bill Gates.

Aside from the work for hire, I am the primary caregiver for my autistic son Harrison, another job that comes with certain costs. For when the school calls, or even when I help out with his cross-country team, the time is not billable. It has, however, given me a greater appreciation for the plight of panhandlers and those who live under bridges, as it has completely changed my perspective on everything.

A health-care professional I see recently told me, “War changes people. You are in a war.” I’d never really thought of it that way until then.

I wonder what wars some of these homeless people have fought, and I wonder what wars Bill Gates has fought too. We’re all fighting some war.

For about the past year I’ve been working toward getting Harrison designated as “disabled” and qualified for Medicaid through a Children’s Extensive Support waiver. This would allow us to pursue some much-needed behavioral therapies. Private insurance of course does not pay for such things. And we can’t afford it out-of-pocket. Just an assessment, for example, can run upwards of $1,500.

After being denied once based on an IQ test, we recently resubmitted our application and were granted the disability designation. Now we are in the process of applying for the actual Medicaid waiver. It feels a little like they’ve only opened the door to the maze.

Meanwhile, some work is play. Perhaps the best therapy – both mental and physical – we can afford has been Harrison’s participation on the middle school cross-country team. I have often joked that we could not have gotten away with such an likely scenario anywhere but here in Custer County.

This season was his third and final before entering high school next year. Over the past two years I can’t describe in this space the roller coaster of outright failure, challenges, disappointments and breakthroughs that we’ve experienced through his participation in sports. All the while, he’s wanted to run. We’ve not given up even when other people thought we were nuts because I’ve always believed in his capabilities. I also believe that sports are a metaphor for life, and that “winning” often means something quite different than first place. Perhaps Harrison’s experiences on the cross-country team will set the stage for success in other areas of life down the road.

As part of the deal with the school and athletics staff, I attend all practices and meets as a volunteer parent coach. And this has been the real gift for me. For not only have I had the opportunity to be a co-creator and witness to my own son’s progress, I’ve also had the opportunity to work with the other kids and to see Harrison’s success through the eyes of his teammates and coaches. He’s literally worked his way past the “Will he finish?” question to running third man on his team.

Thus in his final year I watched as he ran well in one meet after another in Avon, Westcliffe, Gunnison . . . and I began to wonder if a perfect season was possible. We went on to Pueblo, Salida and finally the last meet of the year in Monte Vista, tackling what some would have said impossible and what was at the very least improbable, often running with a smile on his face.

As I looked back on this amazing three-year project, I found myself grateful for all those who supported us along the way, and equally as well to those who thought we were crazy. Because what more important lesson is there for all of us than that of overcoming adversity?

The bittersweet finish to his middle-school cross-country career also brought another jolt to my system as suddenly the workouts and meets were over. I decided we should stay as active as possible after school, running, biking, hiking or whatever, until track season starts in spring.

We had already done a lot but we could still do more.

On one such workout, we turned our bikes around in the fading evening light. I asked Harrison to be still and listen. Against the background of quiet there were ravens croaking and nutcrackers calling out as they flew to their roosts. I asked if he heard them and he said he did. I asked if he could hear the creek trickling faintly in the background and he said he could. Then he simply asked, “Why?” I said because it is important to listen to Nature. He said okay. Then we pointed the wheels downhill toward home.

There is no end to the perfect season and the work has only just begun.

The principal’s gift

May 26, 2017

Last week I decided I probably should break the news to Harrison that his principal would be retiring at the end of the school year. We were driving when I told him this and there was some thoughtful silence in the back seat.

After a while, he asked, “Who will take her place?”

Without going into detail about changing job descriptions at the school, I told him that Mrs. Camper would be in Mrs. Anderson’s office next year.

More thoughtful silence . . .

“But will she be as nice as Mrs. Anderson?”

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Harrison and Principal Holly Anderson

I assured him that she would be, but this exchange suddenly brought another reality into focus. As Harrison’s dad I’ve probably had more interaction with Holly Anderson than most other parents during her years at the school. She arrived right as we were beginning to see some heightened behavioral issues due to Harrison’s autism. Early on he would spend time in her office to chill out when he was having problems, when he was feeling overwhelmed, or needed a quiet place to focus on his work. As time went by Holly also called me several times to bring him home due to extreme misconduct.

I can tell you there’s nothing quite like being called to the school and the principal’s office because your child has, for example, struck out at a teacher. It’s a feeling of despair combined with the effect of someone driving the Indy 500 on your nervous system. It was during these times that I really learned to appreciate Holly for her skills and abilities.

She was always naturally calm regardless what had happened. She seemed to have a way of projecting this calmness to Harrison, and also to me.

Then, when we sat down to discuss whatever had happened, she spoke to Harrison with an astonishing clarity, using language that was on his level but without speaking down to him. In this way she could encourage him to accept and take responsibility for his actions without instilling any hint of guilt or humiliation for what he had done.

The next day when I brought him back to school she would welcome him with a smile and the opportunity for a fresh start. Whatever had happened was not simply swept under the rug. Instead it was used as an opportunity for growth and learning.

I don’t know Holly outside of the school setting at all. But it is my sense she operates from a foundation of hope, kindness and compassion. As such she has been not only an important influence for our kids, but also for parents such as myself and her fellow educators. Her work carries on as a lasting gift to the school, the larger community and beyond.

I know Harrison is going to miss her, and I am grateful to have learned so much from her as well.

The knower of nothing

April 11, 2017

It’s autism awareness month. Are you aware of that?

To build awareness we’ll be fed an endless stream of stereotypes and the myth of a linear autism spectrum by healthcare professionals who should know better and by the media which is clueless. In fact the autism spectrum is much more complicated than can be depicted by a bar chart.

20170314170918129Social media is all lit up with the usual memes and inspiring stories about exceptional autistic kids who are piano prodigies or math geniuses or incredible artists. The key word here is “exceptional,” which does not mean better than the others but is more accurately defined as not typical. One brave mom, so annoyed by all this, was inspired to write a piece called, “My son has the kind of autism no one talks about.”

I get this — we hear too much about the rare kids who are gifted and not nearly enough about the real challenges most autistic kids and parents face. The truth is that most autistic kids, including mine, aren’t exceptional — a high percentage are actually non-verbal. Consider that 70 percent of them will never be able to care for themselves as adults.

In my own writings and talks I have tried my best to maintain a positive outlook while also giving people some eye-openers to reality, and recognizing that my son who turns 13 next week is not like any other autistic child. Yes, he sings with perfect pitch, is a Minecraft genius and runs on the school track and cross-country teams, but he also often has severe behavioral issues.

For example, after causing a major disruption at school during standardized testing recently Harrison acted out violently toward one of the school staff and was escorted to my car by two sheriff’s deputies. I was alarmed and appalled by how out of control his behavior was at school that day, but it is really no different than what I often experience at home.

For autism awareness month, I wrote a cover article for Colorado Country Life magazine about our adventures and challenges on the school running teams. The magazine mails out 227,000 copies throughout the state. In this piece I attempt to balance the realities of failures vs. triumphs. I think both are equally important. In this realm of what I call “Deep Sport” the real victory is in the alchemy of lessons of resilience, patience, humility and empathy into something greater and lasting.

Also this month I was invited by the Raton New Mexico school district to speak at an autism awareness event at the high school there. It was attended by about 60 educators, therapists, parents, students and the school’s baseball team.

One of the messages I tried to convey was that all people, including autistic people, are unique individuals. One person in the audience who read about us in The New York Times asked if I provided some sort of animal therapy here at the ranch. She was not the first person who had this misconception from the article.

I told her no, that I had no answers to anything beyond my own experience with one autistic kid, my own son. I said what I have said about this before — if I had any sort of answers to the autism question there would be a line of parents at my ranch gate and in fact there is nobody there. In my experience this is also true of professionals. If any doctor, psychiatrist, therapist, educator, nutritionist or exorcist had a cure, there would be a long line of people at their office.

To borrow from my friend the mountain yogi Steve Ilg: “I am the knower of nothing.”

Yes, I go to great lengths to involve Harrison in outdoor activities, animals and sports. As much as I would like to believe these experiences are helping him, I have no way of knowing if this is actually true. This isn’t exactly a double-blind study. It’s just what I do. What we do.

This is all I have to share.

After the talk, one of the therapists thanked me, and said that she appreciated my input that there is no concrete solution or specific correct response for any given child in any given situation. “People are always looking to us for the answers, and we don’t really have them.”

Apparently she is doing as a professional what I do as an autism parent — making it up as I go along.

On the way home from Raton we stopped at a store in Trinidad to pick up a few grocery items. During this short shopping excursion I had several problems with Harrison inside the store as he demanded I purchase various junk-food items, clocks, paper plates, a fan, an Amazon gift card. Each time I told him no it was greeted with an outburst and argument.

At the checkout the couple ahead of us kept looking our way as I tried to manage Harrison, a shopping cart and getting the items onto the conveyor. Finally the woman turned and said, “Excuse me, but could you answer a question?”

I said sure, wondering what I was getting myself into.

“Are you the two who were in the San Isabel electric co-op magazine this month?”

Surprised by this seemingly meaningful coincidence, I told her, yes, that’s us.

“I thought so,” she said. “Thank you for writing that. It was very inspiring.”

A matter of control

March 9, 2017


Sometimes we try very hard to control things and it only makes matters worse. This is particularly true when working with beings who have a streak of wildness running through them, like myself for example.

This has recently been drawn more tightly into focus with three wild souls I am working with — Zip, Jimi and my son Harrison.

Zip is an Australian Cattle Dog. These dogs are descendant from wild dingos from Down Under that were bred with English herding dogs to become what we know today as “heelers.” We typically keep Zip on a leash because he tends to run wild when off it. However, the more we keep him leashed, the more he wants to run free.

Then there’s Jimi, a burro foaled in captivity from a wild Bureau of Land Management jenny. He’s larger than most burros and spent a lot of his early existence in the open at a mustang sanctuary, and was initially “handied” in a round pen. Now he views any open range as an opportunity to bolt.

And then there is my son Harrison, The Blur. He’s my son, so the wildness is built-in. But since he’s neurodiverse — he has autism — we’ve had to keep a very close eye on him since he was very young. Since his behaviors can be quite random and range wildly, and it’s difficult to know what’s going to happen next in any given situation, we tend to hover over him, and also help him maybe too much with simple tasks.

With all three we’ve set up situations in which we’ve taught them what they can do by showing them what they can’t do. In our minds, it’s all about safety, but it’s also about control, which is really an illusion — we really don’t have as much control over things as we think we do, if any at all, and eventually the dog is going to get loose, you need the burro to be dependable out in the open, the Blur is going to be in social situations on his own, or need to complete his school work.

Here are some tips that I’ve learned from others and from my own experiences. They may be helpful in working with dogs, burros and people:

  • You need to have more time than they do. Get yourself in a hurry or a frantic rush and you are setting yourself up for disastrous results. Plan ahead and start early if you absolutely have to be somewhere on time (I’ve been known to start the night before). Or be prepared to be late — I often stop, take a deep breath, and drive Harrison in to school late if I feel his getting ready on his own is more important than being there on time. Is that time on the clock just another illusion
  • Make it easy to do the right thing and hard to do the wrong thing. For example, in the video above you can see Jimi trotting along a road with no fenceline on the right. The rope is clipped to the halter not the bridle and he’s traveling in a straight line. However, to get this to happen, he is pointed toward home, it’s on an uphill where he can’t easily get away, and there is a very steep sidehill on the right. It’s easier for him to just run home in a straight line at my pace than it is to turn and bolt up that hill.
  • Find some way to make them think the correct behavior was their own idea. It’s difficult to get Harrison to do his school work, but he is very much fascinated with clocks these days. The other night he came home with a writing assignment about clocks, a stroke of genius on behalf of the staff at school. He did this work without any encouragement — even his handwriting was neat.
  • Positive reinforcement goes a long way. I’ve been “rewiring” Zip to run off-leash. For this, I take him over on the trails on nearby Bear Basin Ranch which is a safe environment.When I let him off the leash, I keep him in “referencing distance by sometimes whistling. Occasionally, I stop and call him. When he returns I pat his head and scratch behind the ears and praise him. This way he gets the idea that coming when called does not mean he is automatically back on the leash. He’s still a long way from running off-leash out on the county road but this goes back to the long-term version of our first point about having more time than they do. I’ve also been experimenting with taking him along with one of the burros. Having a burro along appeals to his stock dog instinct and makes him want to stay close. 

In fact, yesterday when returning from the ranch I removed the lead rope from another donkey I’m training, Teddy, and used it as a leash for Zip. Then I let Teddy run free back here while Zip herded him along on the line. Advanced animal training — they both seemed to think it was their idea.

For more insights about the parallels between helping animals and autistic people achieve triumph in life, check out my book, Full Tilt Boogie.


‘What kind of autism do I have?’

March 6, 2017


Recently while we were out on a run, Harrison asked me, “Hey, what kind of autism do I have?”

I tend to zero in on questions like this as I find his developing self-awareness and the perception of his own neurodiversity fascinating. It was like a few months ago when he asked, “At what age is autism put into the brain?” (Think about that one.)

I was pretty sure what he meant by asking what kind of autism he has, but just to be sure I quizzed him about what he meant by that. He clarified by asking if his autism is mild, moderate or severe.

I then explained as best as I could that it’s really not that simple. While we tend to think of the autism spectrum as a linear shaded bar chart with mild on one end, moderate in the middle, and severe on the other end, that’s a really overly simplistic view.

Truly the autism spectrum is not linear but more accurately depicted as circular. On the outside of this circle are certain characteristics like language and motor skills, sensory perception, and executive function. Social skills and awareness are other variables with autistic people. All people are more or less functional in each of these traits. The best diagram I’ve seen is cartoonist Rebecca Burgess’ illustration.

And here’s the really complicated part — all of these traits affect each other and are dynamic, changing from moment to moment.

So I explained to Harrison that in some ways and at some times he can be mildly autistic and at some times and in some situations he can seem severely autistic. For example, his executive cognitive function, which governs impulse control, sometimes is severely lacking.

More complex, and difficult to understand, is how deficits in one area can produce deficits in others short-term. For example, impulse control issues that lead to a tantrum can directly affect motor skills. A good example of this occurred this past weekend when we participated in a two-part photo shoot for a magazine cover to accompany an article I’ve written about his participation in cross-country and track.

The first sequence of photos was an evening shoot. Harrison was thrilled to participate, was joyful and ran beautifully for the photographer, back and forth with great form for about an hour.

He set his alarm for the next morning’s session but when it went off it was louder than he expected (perception) and this startled him (sensory) which sparked an epic tantrum (executive function and impulse control) which ultimately resulted in poor running form for the photo shoot (motor skills).

That’s the type of autism Harrison had that morning. A totally different “spectrum” from what he and I experienced the previous evening.