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Anya’s 9th Birthday Letter

Happy 9th Birthday, Anya!

I can’t believe it’s your last year in the single digits. You have such big dreams, and it never occurs to you – not even once – they may not come true. You happily spend hours of your Saturday every week at the dance studio, and you practice piano diligently, never trying to get out of it or cut down the number of times you play each song. You live for music, dance, and every art form you can get your hands on.

You are so much like me at your age in that way. Your love for all things princess, magic, and sparkle has been lifelong. You are a diva through and through, in the best possible way. You love anything Barbie and can never have enough pink or glitter. You don’t let what other girls your age like or dislike define what you surround yourself with, and you love your brother and sister fiercely, never embarrassed to play with them or enjoy the things they love with them.

You excel in your homeschool work and read through novels like it’s nothing. You have come so far with your fears and struggles the last couple of years, and I am so proud of you for talking yourself through trying new things and foods, determined not to let Asperger’s hold you back from those things which anxiety can make difficult. You will use the gifts being on the spectrum has given you and continue to overcome the obstacles in order to be the best possible version of yourself, of that I have no doubt. You may have to work harder than the neurotypical girls to get your muscles and movements to cooperate, but I know you will never stop fighting to be the professional ballerina you dream of becoming.

Our home will forever be filled with Nutcracker music, and the look of joy on your face when you are on stage doing what you love will always be one of my favorite things. I am so proud of you, each and every day. Even when it’s hard. Even when we argue because we are too much alike. Even when we disagree because of the ways we are different. You are the little girl who made me a mother, and I love watching you grow into a smart, beautiful, creative, dedicated, and nurturing young woman as the bittersweet years race by. Hope you feel like a princess today. We love you! 💕

Adulting Through Autistic Burnout

Autistic Burnout: Identifying and Coping with it as an Autistic Adult
Okay, so everyone gets tired and overwhelmed sometimes, right? We find ourselves overburdened by the most typical of tasks, adding up over time and combining with the unexpected to thwart the best laid plans. I can’t really speak for anyone else dealing with the spinning of plates necessary as a wife and mother in today’s society, but I would assume I don’t have a monopoly on exhaustion based on my Facebook newsfeed. Even so, I have the added bonus of dealing with something called Autistic Burnout. The symptoms often mimic or coincide with depression. There have been several great articles written on the subject by other adults on the spectrum, but I personally experience these symptoms when in a period of Burnout.

  • Heightened anxiety
  • Feeling more and more lethargic
  • Increased sensitivity to sensory triggers
  • Panic and meltdowns over the smallest mishap
  • Withdrawing verbally and emotionally from social relationships
  • Shutting down completely for periods of time, desiring only to sleep and exist
  • Inability to regulate emotions and crying easily and frequently
  • Forgetfulness and brain fog due to a slowdown in thought processes
  • Decreased motivation and difficulty getting your body or mind to do anything
  • Feeling overwhelmed and extremely guilty for not keeping up with things
  • Drastically worsened Executive Dysfunction

How does it happen? Well, typically it comes after extended periods of time wherein I push myself too hard to constantly achieve a level of productivity that isn’t sustainable while also masking in social situations without taking any time for self care to recharge and process. Basically I try to force myself into the proverbial round neurotypical hole as a square Autistic peg, genetics and psychology be darned. Spoiler alert: reality doesn’t care about my delusions of grandeur.

Burnout can last for days, months, or years. Looking back over my childhood through adolescence and early adulthood, I realize there were several times I remained home from school or work literally sick from exhaustion. An overachiever by nature, I would go and go until there was nothing left to give, and then I would collapse into sleep for anywhere from one day to several until I felt decent enough to get back up and out there accomplishing the things that needed doing.

A little over four years ago, I hit a major brick wall of Burnout after the birth of my middle child. It was triggered by an episode of Postpartum Depression (Or maybe the other way around? Chicken? Egg? Does it even matter?! I dunno. And I digress.) that just would not quit. Around the time my daughter turned one, we moved back to the United States from our duty station in Japan, a place I loved and did not want to leave. I powered through the overseas move, a surprise third pregnancy, and the ridiculous hours and emotional strain of my husband’s temporary job as a recruiter in our new location. Then my daughters were diagnosed with Celiac Disease, and the days of grabbing takeout or frozen dinners to get by were over; they were replaced with the need to cook mostly from scratch for all of their meals to avoid contamination and get their systems clean. With every passing day, my symptoms grew worse and worse.

Two years ago, in the midst of all this, I realized I was on the path to a shutdown of epic proportions. My eldest daughter’s homeschooling was falling miserably behind while I cared less and less about managing the household needs. I was afraid the day would come when I wouldn’t even get out of bed to feed my crying infant son, and with my husband’s work demands, there’d be no one to care for the three children depending on me to survive. I ended up in my psychologist’s office being officially diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome and required to attend therapy sessions twice a week to stop the emotional hemorrhaging until I could breathe and get my bearings.

I did a lot of work in those sessions, which continued into once a week appointments over the course of that first year. With a lot of introspection, realizations, and acquiring of tools needed to manage a home and family with my unique circumstances, I eventually reached a level of mental health never before achieved in my life. I came out the other side stronger, wiser, and aware of my needs as an Autistic woman. But guess what? The Burnout still isn’t completely over. I’m still pulling myself out of that hole, one step at a time, being careful not to do anything that might send me flailing back into the worst of it.

Unfortunately, at least in my case, adulting does not stop just because I’m experiencing Burnout. As a military spouse, there is no calvary coming. Thankfully, we are no longer on recruiting duty and were able to move back to Japan for our next station, where we currently plan to live for the next three years. Even so, I have to able to manage the household and the needs of all of the children and myself no matter how I’m feeling because it just isn’t possible for my husband to drop everything and step in, especially if he’s in the midst of training or deployed. My kids can’t eat whatever is convenient because of their health, and I have to be an advocate for my children concerning not only their dietary needs but the spectrum needs of my oldest and youngest children as well as myself.

So how do I deal with the stress of the everyday needs of my family while pursuing my own goals and passions without losing it? I put into place a few boundaries and practices to keep me realistic but productive and healthy.

Routine
While you can’t set a clock by me necessarily, I try to maintain the same order of events in my day. We get up, make beds and prepare ourselves for the day, eat breakfast, and start independent homeschool work while the littles play and I get writing work done. After a couple of hours, we take a one hour lunch break. The kids get cartoons and playtime while I allow myself to watch an episode of one of my shows on my laptop with my headphones in and eat my lunch in relative peace. This break is imperative to keep me from feeling like I have spent my whole day spinning my wheels as a mother, teacher, and professional with no downtime.

After lunch I work with my prekindergartener while the older continues her independent work for about an hour, and then we do reading time together for an hour or two per our literature-based curriculum. Afterward, I get about an hour before dinner needs to get started that I currently use to finish up any work that might be weighing on me, whether related to writing or household management. Dinner, nighttime clean up, and bedtime routine for the kiddos follow, and then I take the evening after they are in bed to watch TV and/or spend time talking with my husband for a couple of hours.

The nightly recharge is a necessity. If I skip it more than one day in a row, I will start to shutdown and get overwhelmed. I know this, so I plan accordingly and force myself to stop and take my designated breaks unless I absolutely do not have a choice because of work or school deadlines that cannot be changed. Even if we have obligations outside of the house, at the very least my evening break is set in stone.

Calendar/Schedule
Along those same lines, I keep a color-coded calendar that divides out the days and weeks to help me keep track of extracurricular activities, nights out with friends or as a couple with my husband, appointments, etc. I block them out and remove homeschool time or office hours as necessary, being sure to make sure we have ample time the other days in our routine so I don’t feel like I’m falling behind. I keep the calendar on my phone and computer so I can check it regularly throughout the day.

Knowing that time for work or school or errands is already accounted for keeps me from feeling like I need to get to everything RIGHT NOW. I also try really hard to set aside Sunday as a family day for a fun outing or a chill day to sit around playing video games or watching movies to completely recharge before we roll into a new week of commitments.

Self Care
The breaks built into my days and week are a great way to make sure I just relax a few hours a week to avoid getting overwhelmed, but I also know I need time to pursue my own interests. Not only do I make an effort to join social groups within our military community (I’m an extroverted Autistic woman. We exist. Hi. Also, it sucks to have social anxiety while also craving social interaction.), but I also take dance and music classes. Though I do usually need a little extra downtime after either event because of the stress of being in a social environment, I love feeling like I have an identity that is my own in pursuing these experiences.

I build work hours into my day and will soon be adding grad school studies to the mix, both allowing me to achieve professional goals that are important to me. I also make it a priority to read almost every evening before bed, filling my literature nerd cup with something not required by my academic career. Productivity is fulfilling for me as long as I am careful to balance it with intermittent social and logistical detox time.

Delegating/Being Realistic
Realizing my own limitations was a major eye-opener for the way I run my life. I simply cannot do it all. I literally can’t. I may be smarter than your average bear, but I cannot function logistically on the same level as my neurotypical peers. Now, I lean on my husband for support to cook and run errands and take care of the kids any time that he can instead of letting my control freak nature make it impossible to ask for help. (And being a team in this way improves our communication and relationship, so bonus!) I hire babysitters to take over when I have an event or appointment that taking the kids to isn’t possible or would be a nightmare for my stress levels.

I also hire a cleaning service to come to our home every couple of weeks and handle the dirt. I can organize all day long and thrive in a neat, picked up home, but the actual cleaning was lost to the wayside a long time ago during this never-ending Burnout. Knowing it will just get done without being the one to worry about how and when makes a HUGE difference in my anxiety when I notice dust or mildew that makes me twitch.

I have a tendency to bite off more than I can chew, so now I make myself stop and think about the reality of what I can accomplish in a day. I only require myself to do the minimum amount of writing for my job instead of taking on extra just because I can. I will only be taking one course at a time while acquiring my graduate degree.

I don’t focus as much on the self-imposed deadlines for our homeschooling and instead concentrate on trying to hit all of our subjects a little each day that we are at home to do school. If we don’t finish something, it is not the end of the world as long as the three R’s are the first thing we do in our routine so we are sure to maintain them at an appropriate grade level. Everything else is icing on the cake.

I don’t expect myself to go to bed or wake up early, as neither come naturally to me. I start my day around 9 and end it around midnight, with plenty of time to do the things I want and like in between. I know I need 9 hours of sleep regularly, with very sparing nights of 7-8 when I have no choice because of obligations outside the home. More than one night in a row toward the lower end, and I will not be able to function. I know my limits, and I try my best to plan around them.

It’s important to my A-type self to keep up with the daily necessities and pursue productive goals, but I also have to be mindful of the reality of my diagnosis and what that means for day-to-day expectations. Making sure I have plenty of time to recharge, giving myself downtime after social interactions, and depending on others to do what I just cannot reasonably get to during the day are coping skills I have adopted over the past year that have made it possible for me to feel fulfilled without being overwhelmed on a daily basis.

If you are on the spectrum or have people in your life that are, please be thoughtful about what overdoing it can lead to and that more help will be necessary dealing with everyday tasks than for those who are not on the spectrum. Burnout is real and can be catastrophic if not addressed. Take care of yourself, and be kind to those around you.

Our 4th Grade Math & Language Arts Curriculum Choices for the 2018-2019 Homeschool Year

4th Grade Math & Language Arts

Today I’m sharing our choices for math and language arts skills for the new school year as my oldest child enters 4th grade. Many of our selections are continuations of past years with a few changes to things that just weren’t working, as usual. Our homeschool curriculum and philosophy is ever-changing and fluid based on the needs of our lives at the time and those of my individual children.

I have learned in the past couple of years, to prioritize the three R’s, as it were, to avoid falling behind grade level when life gets crazy. Anything else learned is gravy on top, and as long as my children can read, write, and do age appropriate mathematics, they will have the tools and education to pursue knowledge in any other avenue they so desire at any point in their lives they so choose. As such we utilize workbook and textbook formats for the foundations of these subjects while preferring literature and experiences for everything else so that the kids are exposed to ideas and gaining knowledge without the stress of hitting benchmarks or enduring testing.

Saxon Math 5/4 with DIVE Instructor Videos and xtramath.org Fact Practice
We have been doing Saxon Math since the Kindergarten book, and though at times it is a lot of work and repetition, it works very well for retention for my daughter. I will admit, we often leave out memorization or practice exercises that feel excessive for an academically gifted child on the spectrum with a knack for recall because it doesn’t interfere with her understanding of the concepts for us to do so. If I ever notice something slipping, we add that practice back in until she is up to speed.

This year, we began the new to us format of the older grade books which at first made Anya a bit nervous. But, for the first time, she is able to do her math work completely independent from me until it’s time to check for mistakes. She watches the DIVE video while taking notes, then reads through the textbook lesson and works through the practice problems. Thus far she is doing very well and has yet to ask me a single question or miss a problem for anything other than a simple adding mistake. The provided graph paper worksheets for working out problems have also been very helpful to aide her in developing better habits of writing smaller and being more organized, which is a must in math. This is something that her fine motor skill struggles have made difficult for her in recent years as she needed to be able to line up columns and would sometimes end up with a confusing mess.

I do not utilize Saxon’s timed math fact sheets as there is already so much to do in a single lesson for Saxon that it is far too time consuming with a child who panics with timers put in place by me and gets distracted when writing things down on paper. Instead, I opted for timed practice online through the free program on xtramath.org, which has done wonders for her mental math skills in the two years we’ve used it for addition and subtraction. This year we’re implementing the full program to include multiplication and division, and she is whizzing through the addition section in review without difficulty. Doing it on the computer gives her a break from all the workbook writing, and takes the teacher role away from me for a subject that previously has been one that I experienced a lot of time lost during due to Anya dragging her feet just to get at me when she was in a mood. Having her independence has been a major boost in her morale concerning math, and a relief for me as someone who is not math gifted especially when it comes to teaching more than the basics to someone else.

Wordly Wise 3000 Book 4
Having completed our phonics work with Explode the Code last school year, we switched gears to Wordly Wise this year for vocabulary enrichment. You can begin it in earlier years, but our phonics curriculum did a pretty good job of introducing new words at those lower levels in addition to her reading so I decided to wait until vocabulary could replace an existing item in our homeschool daily agenda rather than add yet more to it. Anya is doing well working through this independently, and the reading comprehension sections in each lesson were something she needed practice with. Inferring answers that aren’t in black and white on the page is definitely not something she is strong in and tends to panic when she can’t find one written out, so she’s learning to trust her thought processes and not rely on answers placed directly within the page since they don’t always exist. I feel confident that this alone will make doing Wordly Wise worth it as the year progresses.

Handwriting Without Tears: Cursive Success & Building Writers Level E
Anya has been using the Handwriting Without Tears program since PreK and the cursive portion since the latter part of 2nd grade. She loves that she’s getting to learn cursive, and the workbooks have always been pretty simple for her to do independently. Learning Without Tears released their new Building Writers series this spring, and we bought the 3rd grade level book to test out before deciding to stick with it moving into this school year. Creative writing is a favorite subject for Anya so these books allow her to independently learn the aspects of writing for both research and creative purposes in small chunks without me having to put as much effort into coming up with and guiding assignments. We previously have used several different programs, most recently Sonlight’s integrated Creative Expression, for writing practice, but I struggled with the amount of parental involvement on top of our other Sonlight choices, which I’ll discuss more in a later post. This new series is meant to be used as a supplement, but there are blank template pages within each unit for the various styles of writing that I either let Anya choose or assign topics for in order to keep her writing experience well rounded. We’ll switch to something more rigorous when this program ends after 5th grade and focus more now on simple mechanics and the joy of writing so that she stays inspired to pursue it instead of getting frustrated.

Easy Grammar: Grade 4
As with writing, we have tried several different grammar programs over the years. I always felt like things didn’t review enough for retention, but didn’t want a program that added in writing since we covered that elsewhere. And most of them, again, still didn’t spiral back through concepts enough for me. Last year, about halfway through the year, we stopped using the Sonlight language arts grammar portion that was included in the Creative Expression mentioned above and switched to Easy Grammar. In a few minutes a day, Anya can work through grammar exercises that build on each other to get a better grasp of sentence structure. The difference in her understanding has been phenomenal. We worked double time to finish the book and begin book 4 for this school year, and it wasn’t hard at all for her to do 3 or 4 pages in a day if necessary. I am thrilled to finally feel a curriculum “click” for us in the realm of grammar after so many years of feeling like we just weren’t quite getting it.

All About Spelling: Level 4
All About Spelling is a progress at your own speed program that we flew through at first when we began it in 1st grade and then worked through painfully slowly in the following years due to life experiences when we prioritized other subjects. This year I think we’ll work through it pretty quickly since we’re in a better routine. I do have to be involved with this one to teach the lesson, but thanks to a release of their iPad app we no longer have to use a whiteboard with physical magnetic letter tiles which keeps things so much simpler. I love that this program teaches spelling phonetically which matched up to our previous phonics curriculum and allows Anya to understand the rules of English spelling rather than learn themed word sets. I wish we all learned spelling this way! Even though she can’t do it independently, we will continue using this for the long haul until we complete level 7.

Having most of our language arts and math materials be workbooks that require a few minutes a day each of practice that can mostly be done independently has made this year go so much more smoothly overall than when I had to be more involved with everything. It allows me to put more focus on the things I do with her while working with my younger ones or getting my own work done during her independent work. I definitely don’t feel spread as thinly as I did in the past.

Why We Homeschool on a Year-Round Schedule

When we first started out on our homeschool journey, I mostly stuck to the traditional schedule in terms of the months we spent doing schoolwork. This was easy because for a couple of years we only really had to do assignments two or three days a week to accomplish a school year. Then we progressed past Kindergarten, and it was time to get serious. We found ourselves falling behind a lot when we’d take unexpected days off for one reason or another. We were simply scheduled too rigidly. I had read about the benefits of year-round schooling over at weirdunsocializedhomeschoolers.com and decided I really liked the idea. So I implemented it the following school year and haven’t looked back, though I have tweaked it to fit our upcoming commitments each year as well as account for what might not have worked so well a previous year.

What Does a Year-Round Schedule Look Like for Us?
Typically we begin our school year the first full week after the 4th of July holiday. Heat is one of my personal sensory triggers so we tend to avoid being outdoors much during the day for most of the latter part of summer and early fall when I know I’m just going to be miserable trying to do anything. It makes sense for us to use this time to get school done and save the fun outdoor activities for evenings or cooler temperatures in the early spring. Our fall break usually comes around the first week of October when we take off the week of my oldest daughter’s birthday.

This doesn’t mean we don’t take a day off before October, we just tend to only do so if something comes up such as illness or an unexpected day off for their dad so we can enjoy that time with him since we never know when he might be gone for weeks or months at a time. It means we’re in school for a good solid 12 weeks, but I find it’s best to do that long haul at the beginning when the curriculum is new and exciting and no one is burned out yet. Then we get back to school for the next six weeks or so after my daughter’s birthday, only taking the day of Halloween off, until the week of Thanksgiving.

At this point we take a long holiday break because the Christmas season is a favorite in our house, and we tend to do a lot of extra activities in and outside of the home to celebrate. I found trying to enjoy the season while keeping up with school always made it stressful instead of joyful, and I refused to let that become our reality each year during a time that usually brought me so much comfort. Originally this break lasted from that next to last week of November through the first week of January, but now we usually take an extra week to get through my son’s birthday the second week of January before we start back.

So, wait, doesn’t that mean we just switched out the 8 week summer break for a winter one? How is that year-round? Well, we don’t typically take the entire break off from all schoolwork. We use the weeks leading up to Christmas to make up anything we’ve inevitably gotten behind on and keep a light, relaxed schedule as we make our way through it. If something has come up in the spring that we weren’t aware off at the beginning of the school year that means we need to work ahead so we can take time off, we do a little of that, too. It takes the pressure off to know we don’t have a hard deadline for finishing up the semester, it’s just an ideal goal to have that long break if we somehow miraculously get to everything.

As we begin the spring semester, we go for about 7 weeks and take a spring break that spans the week of my middle daughter’s birthday as well as my own in early March. This allows us to get back in the swing of things knowing another break is in sight. Then we finish up the school year in a long stretch through the last week or so of May and take a short summer break through June and Independence Day. But, just like with the winter break, we use June as a buffer for anything that didn’t get done in the spring without having to be on a full schedule.

We still have plenty of time to enjoy summer activities and sign up for camps or travel, but we don’t have the stress of finishing by a certain date. I turn in grades to our umbrella school June 15, and whatever isn’t don’t by then we just do for our own benefit of the knowledge without worrying about an official record. Usually there’s only a few lessons left of anything that would need grading, or the work left is in subjects that are simply pass or fail anyway so this works for us.

What are the Best Benefits of Homeschooling Year-Round for Us?
Taking time off for things that are important to us as family. We aren’t beholden to the traditional school year calendar so we can thoroughly enjoy the winter holidays. Last year my older daughter was in a big, fancy production of the Nutcracker ballet, and the rehearsals through November and December took up hours and hours of our week. We didn’t have to worry about trying to maintain a regular schoolwork schedule, and she could fully dedicate herself to dance and enjoy the experience while I kept my sanity.

We can take off for birthdays and go do something fun for the day at the request of the birthday kid with no worries about the schoolwork that needs doing. And because we have the buffers of December and June to finish up each semester, we can easily take a spur of the moment trip or extra day off for visiting with family. Most importantly, the kids can spend time with their dad any time he is off instead of being stuck doing schoolwork during those precious hours only to be off when he’s deployed or gone training. Since we can’t always plan ahead for when he will be home vs. gone, being able to wing it goes a long way.

We don’t have to stress about holding to super hard deadlines as long as we are consistently working most days through each subject with the goal of being halfway by Christmas, and finished by June. This allows me to throw off the chains of my OCD tendencies to schedule us by the minute and go with what works. If we want to read an extra chapter of a novel together? We do it. If we want to spend all day doing science for the whole week’s assignments and then work on the other subjects the other days? We do it. As long as we are generally on track, it’s not an issue. And as the kids grow, that time management will be more and more their responsibility instead of mine which is very freeing with three children to homeschool at once. As long as they complete the week’s work, it won’t matter in what order or which days.

What are the Downfalls of Homeschooling Year-Round for Us?
As you can probably tell, we don’t schedule super rigidly so sometimes this can lead to a false sense of having endless time to “get to it later”. Don’t do that! It ends in a mad dash to catch up in December and June that definitely doesn’t add to the joy of those seasons. I have to be mindful that if we don’t legitimately have something else going on that requires our commitment that day, we NEED to do school and work through the majority of our subjects. I cannot get complacent with such an open schedule and put things off, and this is a lesson I learned the hard way during the first couple of years of implementing this schedule. But I prefer this need to be mindful to the stress of a rigid schedule because I would start to stress out, and my mental health would suffer for it, every time we’d finish a day without getting all of the boxes checked. For us, having a more relaxed approach is a better balance of our time and energies.

If you’ve considered year-round homeschooling, I hope this post has given you a little insight into the pros and cons and given you some ideas. You don’t have to follow my schedule; that’s the beauty of it. You can homeschool around the events and seasons that are important for your family and adjust fire for unexpected things that occur throughout the school year without letting a schedule dictate your every move. After all, if you’re like me you didn’t choose homeschooling so you could stress about checking the boxes of a curriculum and not be able to take time to enjoy life and your kids. For me, maintaining patience is key to enjoying my kids and ensuring they build fond memories of their time at home. Homeschooling year-round has allowed me to do that much better than in the past, as long as I remain mindful that we get work done with regularity.