Monday, April 24, 2017

Book Nook: Planet A

I recently had the chance to review Planet A, which details the journey of Diane Mayer Christiansen and her son through the twists and turns of an ASD diagnosis.

This was an eye-opening book to read. I have read other stories of parents who have kids on the autism spectrum, and I have students and family members on the autism spectrum, but it's still amazing to me to see how different everyone's story is - yet at the same time, how many similarities there are. I highly recommend reading personal accounts of autism such as this one, either to find hope and encouragement if you have a child on the ASD spectrum, or to gain insights into other families if you don't.

I had a chance to interview Diane to learn more.

Why did you decide to write this book?
The idea to write Planet A came from two places. Firstly, whenever I would speak to educators or parents about ASD, I would always have someone from the audience suggest that I should write a book about the stories that I share. I have always been a story teller and I really feel that the best way to learn about ASD is by sharing actual stories. Secondly, I began to notice in autism chatrooms many common themes. Many parents starting out with a child newly diagnosed had many of the same questions, all issues that I had dealt with myself.  I remembered how isolated I felt in the early days with my son Jackie and how frustrating it was. I thought that by sharing my experiences in a book, other parents might feel that they are not alone.

What has been the biggest surprise about parenting a child with autism?
The humor, for sure. You start out your ASD journey with fear and frustration, constantly worrying about all of the issues that make your child different. Then you get to a point where you have to just let things go and realize that your child will be fine. We laugh a lot at ourselves and the situations that we get into. Jackie is a tell-it-like-it-is person with no filter. Sometimes the things out of his mouth are shocking but mostly funny. We love heavy sarcasm and we have so many private jokes. Everyday is an adventure.
What has been the biggest struggle?
The judgements of other people have been the hardest thing. At first you question yourself, am I doing things that are best for my child? Friends and even family members are constantly telling you that you're over reacting or that the ASD will go away and it just isn't going anywhere. There have been so many times when Jackie and I have been out at a restaurant or shopping or at a parade and Jackie just loses it for some reason, usually a sensory issue. And here I am with this six foot two boy, out of control, yelling at me in front of a room full of strangers. I get the look a lot. That look of, wow your kid is a spoiled brat. I can't always in that moment explain that it's really just his brain reacting to something that is difficult to process. And in truth, I get tired of explaining so it's funny. My struggle isn't really with ASD as much as it is with those around me who don't understand.
How can people support parents of children with autism?
I think the biggest support is to no assume you know what we're going through. Ask questions. I know that people are trying to be nice when they tell me that Jackie seems just like every other kid his age, but that can be frustrating for me to hear. What is tells me is that you don't really want to learn. If every parent could teach their children about ASD, that would be big. The biggest support needs to come from an ASD child's peers. Knowing how to redirect them when they get off topic, letting them know their feelings in words rather than facial expressions or actions, and accepting them as they are would be a great beginning.
How can parents of children with autism advocate for their needs in school and other organizations?
Advocating for your child is so important. Only a close caregiver knows truly what an ASD child needs. A parent shouldn't be afraid to go into a school system and voice their concerns and they should never accept that a teacher knows what's best. As difficult as it may be, a parent should always follow through and make sure that accommodations are being met. But bigger than all of this is teaching your ASD children to advocate for themselves. Teach them about how their brains work differently and give them resources within the school to take care of issues on their own. It took Jackie until eighth grade to find his voice. He's in high school now and still finds it difficult to be his own advocate but he's making progress. He has a direct line to the social work staff and can address problems immediately if he needs to.

Diane Mayer Christiansen, author of the nonfiction book PLANET A, graduated with a Biology degree despite her struggles with dyslexia. She worked at both the University of Chicago and Northwestern University doing genetic research. Christiansen is now a published author writing about her journey with her son Jackie, and his Autism Spectrum Disorder. She is a motivational speaker, talking to parents and teachers about learning to celebrate those things that make our children different as well as her journey with ASD.  Jackie Christiansen is also a publish author and speaks openly about his struggles.

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