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Top Ten: Toys We Got Our Money’s Worth With (And Then Some)

February 15, 2012 1 comment

With three kids, toys are not hard to come by in our apartment. However, there are only a handful of toys that entertain a special needs 11 year old, an almost-3 year old and a 16-month old in equal measure. When we see the kids playing with one of the toys on this list, my husband and I will often say to each other “we really got our money’s worth out of that one,” to which the other usually responds, “and then some.” Several of the toys on this list cost less than $10, but in order to be on the Top Ten you can be sure that they have worked some serious overtime.

All of the toys listed below meet the following criteria: 1) They are played with at least 3 times per week, 2) They entertain all 3 children, together or separately, 3) we have made the “money’s worth” comment at least once

1. Duplos: not Legos. With his limited fine motor skills, James prefers the larger sized Duplos, which works well with toddlers in the house. We have a few big duplo bases and 2 buckets of blocks. The kids play with these almost every day, and can keep busy building for an hour (a long time in mommy land). They are easy to clean and practically indestructible. And, it can be fun for adults too, so the potential for quality family time is an extra bonus. Yes, they can be a little expensive – want an expert tip? Try ebay (we have struck gold there)!

2. Discovery marble maze. I know that marbles and 16 month olds don’t generally mix, but with proper supervision this toy entertains all 3 of my kids for hours. To keep them out of each other’s hair (the baby can really “Godzilla” the marble towers) I usually build 3 separate mazes, individually tailored for ability (and height). It’s not as hard as it sounds, each maze takes less than 5 minutes to put together, and what’s 15 minutes when you’re talking about hours of fun? Again, sets can be expensive. Same tip: try ebay before purchasing new.

3. Balls. My children are not ball snobs, any ball will do. I think they might be partial to balls that bounce (especially if we’re somewhere inappropriate like the doctor’s office), but size doesn’t matter. One of our current games is taking cardboard boxes of various sizes and lobbing lots of balls across the living room into them. Kind of like a loose, giggly version of beanbag toss.

4. Leapfrog Fridge DJ. We spent $7.99 on this item 2 Christmases ago and it’s still a daily-use item. The magnetic radio sticks to the fridge and plays about 15 songs in 3 categories: numbers, letters and classics. Most of the songs are now in our daily repertoire and it isn’t uncommon to catch someone in there jamming to “Birdie, Bye Bye.” Yes, including James.

5. Hot Wheels retractable race track. Got this for less than $20 for James’s birthday 3 years ago, still going strong. The racetrack rolls in and out like a tape measure with two tracks, so no big race track all over your little Manhattan apartment. It works with most Hot Wheel type cars, doesn’t require batteries and can extend 12″ or 4 feet depending on who is playing. Best part, IMO? There are little flags at the end of each track that indicate the winner, which really cuts down on the “I won!”, “No I won!” arguments.

6. Crayola Dry Erase Crayons. These have been used and cleaned up successfully on dry erase surfaces, car and house windows, highchairs and subways (seats and windows). No joke. At less than $7 do I really need to continue?

7. Train table. After reading a lot of reviews and doing some serious price shopping, we settled on the Imaginarium brand, but there are lots of nice options out there. The Imaginarium City Train Table takes up a lot of space (around 3X5) and at $140 it was our most pricey purchase on this list, but since Christmas the kids have logged at least 100 hours on this thing (remember, I’m not exaggerating numbers this year). The set includes a bunch of cool pieces like a crane, bridge, train station, and tunnel, all with cool sound effects. It comes with a couple of trains but is also compatible with Brio, Thomas and generic wooden trains. So we’re at a cost of $1.40 per play hour so far – at this rate it won’t be long until the thing pays for itself.

8. Little Tykes indoor “fold away” playground (folds up for compact storage, New Yorkers!). With a toddler sized slide and steps it is perfect for my younger two. Add in the mini basketball and soccer net and James can join in their fun. Great, amazing fun for rainy, cold days (or weeks).  Easy to put away, fits into our foyer when open. Paid around $99, worth every penny.

9. Fisher Price toy laptop – “Fun to Learn” I can’t say that the Fisher Price brand is better than any of the other toy laptops out there right now, but for the last 3 years it has captivated all of my children in one way or another. There are a variety of skill levels so that my 16 month old can play tunes, my 2 yr old can work on phonics and my 11 yr old can try out math games with a “mouse.” No, not at the same time.

10. Nintendo action figures – random, but surprisingly successful – the little characters have been carried continuously by one child or another for the last 6 months, and if they get lost we actually have to take the time and look for them. We have collected Mario, Luigi, Peach, Yoshi and Toad so far – they run around $8 for a pack of 2. Two of my children are sleeping with one in hand right now.

Special Interactive Edition – Top Ten: Christmas Movies That The Whole Family Can Enjoy. Yep, Even The Parents.

December 21, 2011 1 comment

ALERT: After much discussion, we have decided to rest at a Top Nine this evening. Though there are other Christmas movies that we really enjoy individually, there were no others that we felt fit the bill as far as being entertaining and appropriate for a 1 yr old, 2 yr old, special needs 11 yr old and two adults.

But it feels funny to have a Top Nine, like I’m not quite finished (but I am). So feel free to leave your ideas for #10 in the comments section along with the reason why it’s your favorite!

1. Elf: An instant classic, Will Ferrell is at his best here. Something for all ages to enjoy, we watch this at least 10 times every holiday season and still laugh hard every time. The NYC setting makes it extra fun for the kids (and us!).

2. A Christmas Carol (Jim Carrey version): Not to be outdone, Jim Carrey is also at his prime as Scrooge in this remake. The graphics are gorgeous (think Polar Express but even better) and the story stays true to the Dickens classic, often word for word, yet still remains accessible to young children.

3. How The Grinch Stole Christmas (both versions) We read the book and own the original movie, but the newer Jim Carrey version is pretty good too. Very simple bad-turns-good Christmas spirit theme for young children while reminding adults to enjoy the holiday and stop grumbling about the noise noise noise noise!

4. The Polar Express: Tom Hanks, snowy train rides, hot chocolate dances and beautiful images have entranced my entire family (including my husband, who has a man-crush on Hanks).

5. Christmas Eve On Sesame Street: Made even better with some great original songs, I can’t help but tear up every time I hear “True Blue Miracle.” Yes, it’s Sesame Street, but I’m pretty sure that I’m the reason we watch this one more than once every season. And my kids LOVE Oscar on the stairs (watch to find out what I’m talking about!)

6. Miracle on 34th Street (1994 edition) Mara Wilson is adorable as always in this one, but the kids really enjoyed all of the NYC references, especially since we just saw the balloons being inflated for the Macy’s day parade (an opening scene in the movie).

7. Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer (stop-motion): the kids love the characters – Hermey the Misfit Elf, the Abominable Snoman, Yukon Cornelious, and of course, Rudolph. I love the message of “celebrating one’s unique talents”on more than one level.

8. Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town (stop-motion) explains how Santa came to be (and he’s a redhead, which my daughter finds incredible)! Yes, it’s obvious that it is from 1970, but 41 years later it still makes an annual appearance on TV which puts it right up there with Charlie Brown.

9. Charlie Brown Christmas – though this one seems like an obvious choice, I think it made it onto the Top Nine purely on a nostalgic basis. Honestly, the kids in this movie are pretty mean to each other (especially Charlie Brown!) which seems to fly in the face of Christmas spirit (something my husband and I didn’t notice until our toddler watched it and started calling people “blockheads.”) But, my husband still cries at the Linus verse every time, earning it a spot on the favorite Christmas movie list.

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I’d love to hear from you – what movies have we been missing?

Top Ten: Ways a Special Needs School Tour Can Go Wrong

November 29, 2011 Leave a comment

Today’s Top Ten was going to be a spoof. I needed a topic and my sister and I were joking around this weekend about the Top Ten Questions My Christmas Tree Should’ve Asked Before Moving In. But after this morning, there is no doubt in my mind as to what my Top Ten will be.

In an effort to jumpstart my school review series (coming soon!) while simultaneously demonstrating why it has taken so long to get up and running, I thought I would dedicate this Top Ten to the disastrous school tour I just returned home from. Only on planet Special Needs is one required to regularly attend open houses in order to find the right middle school for their fifth grader – I’m not kidding, it’s like applying to college but much less organized.

Today’s tour was at my first private special needs school (up until today I had been focusing on public options) – this one is located quite a distance from our apartment. Though tours are sometimes rescheduled at the last minute or start late, the Top Ten Ways A Special Needs School Tour Can Go Wrong promptly began:

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1. Due to unforeseeable circumstances I was left bringing both babies to the tour this morning. Enough said.

2. I then had the pleasure of lugging said babies to drop James off at school, followed by shuttling them onto 3 subways and a bus.

3. Once above ground we got to tour around the school’s neighborhood. Alot. We entered 3 separate buildings before finally finding the middle school office. At which point I was kindly directed to the main building where the tour actually started, back on the main road.

4. Two minutes into the tour, Adam pooped. Alot. Not a bathroom or changing table in sight. Hope he can get through the hour without making a fuss.

5. Five minutes later, Margaret loudly announces to the tour she has to poop. I am directed to a nearby girls room, where I instantly confirm that there is definitely nowhere to change Adam.

6. We enter a small, quiet conference room to meet with the Executive Director and introduce ourselves. Damn this tour for being so small and personal. Adam wants to get down and explore the beautiful, gigantic aquarium, the many shiny plaques and awards, and all of the other neat knicknacks lining the director’s office walls. I say no and offer him a cookie. A donut. Blueberries. A cup of water. A book. My phone. I whisper “Wheels on the Bus” into his ear while looking as interested in possible in the special electives the school has to offer. Adam squeals loudly in anger, interrupting introductions and director. Many, many times.

7. After a few minutes I excuse myself from the office, leaving Margaret in a swirly chair with a book (the walls are glass so I can see through). I stand outside of conference room rocking a screaming baby, straining to pick up a sentence or two, trying to wait out the Executive Director so that I can at least see one or two classrooms before giving up.

8. Adam decides that he is done screaming. Thank goodness! Instead, he head-butts me in the face in a last ditch effort to be let down, giving him a bloody nose and me a bloody lip. The secretary looks stunned. Not so thankful that the conference room walls are glass anymore.

9. I pack up my stuff and hustle out of the tour while Adam continues thrashing around like a muskie out of water. The tour started one hour ago (plus 2 hours of travel) and we were not able to see a single classroom.

10. Despite having checked online before leaving, we walk outside into the pouring rain. Adam screams until we reach the first subway, where he promptly falls asleep. Perfect timing.

Bonus: Adam wakes up refreshed and ready to play upon arriving home. I’m ready for a bowl of ice cream and a nap.

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And then it was 11:30am. How was your morning?

Top Ten: Life Lessons Learned from Exceptional Individuals

November 1, 2011 4 comments

They say it’s not prudent to mix family and business. To that I say, “pffffffffffft.” First of all, if you haven’t noticed, my family is my business (seriously, have you read this blog?). But more importantly, occasionally including my family in my blog is a way to share their stories and point of views while still respecting their privacy.

I know – you are probably scratching your head as you read “respecting their privacy,” coming from the same woman who wrote “Airing the Dirty Laundry.” I truly believe that sharing stories and being open with others regarding your loved one’s special needs almost always results in more help, support, better understanding and a lighter load overall. Because of this philosophy I treat my life like an open book, and let’s face it, James’s too – I just don’t think he’d care that I share his stories with you (have you read the Monday Minute yet?) However, I don’t feel that it’s appropriate to apply my “open policy” to family and friends – it’s not my business to share my husband’s struggles, my parent’s opinions or my siblings’ feelings regarding James, disabilities, politics or the weather (okay, maybe the weather).

Which is why I’m so glad that they are stepping forward on their own (with a very slight tiny nudge from me). First at bat is my favorite, only, little sister, Brigid. Brigid lives in CT where she is a senior in high school. She spends one week every summer volunteering at Clelian Heights School for Exceptional Children in Greensburg, PA and around ten more volunteering at the Searfoorce House of Undernapping Children in NY, NY.

I am the oldest and she is the youngest of five siblings, but don’t let our age difference fool you – this girl has been a lifesaver (and sanity saver) on so many occasions I’ve lost count. She is fantastic with all of my kids, but is especially patient, caring and patient with James. Yes, she’s that patient. Brigid views me on such a high pedestal that I feel obligated to do better when she is around in order not to crush her delusions about my amazing parenting skills. Though she is the baby of the family in many ways, you will see when reading her Top Ten that Brigid is wise well beyond her years.

Top Ten: Life Lessons Learned from Exceptional Individuals

by Brigid Gerrity

My experience at Clelian Heights, combined with all of the time I’ve spent with my nephew, James, have taught me so many truly amazing life lessons.

1.       Don’t sweat the small stuff. I am one of those individuals who is regularly prone to overreacting to the most ridiculously minute things. One of the most beautiful things that I’ve witnessed in both James and in my experience at Clelian Heights is the ability to just let the small stuff roll of your back and to realize what’s really important.

2.       Say “I Love You” candidly and frequently.  James is our family love bug. As Michaela frequently jokes, and as we’ve all personally experienced, James’ favorite and most practiced phrase is “I love you”. He is a constant reminder that one of the most important things you can say to someone important to you is “I love you”. Never be afraid to say it.

3.       Be open to everyone you meet. Probably one of the most outstanding things that I consistently witnessed at Clelian was the fact that all of the students, regardless of how well they knew the other students, were always receptive and open to one another, as if they had known each other for their entire life.

4.       When you’re willing to work for something, you can achieve it. My sister is the one who has taught me this life lesson. Michaela strives day in and day out to accomplish so much with James. She has been an absolute inspiration, because I see that the more energy and determination that she devotes to James’ cause, the more and more she accomplishes on a regular basis.

5.       Rejoice in the triumphs of others. One of the most moving days of my entire life came when I was working with a Down Syndrome student, Ryan. He is about eight years old, and we spent all class working together, putting colored cotton balls into their matching colored container. Every time he got one correct, his level of excitement and pride allowed me to feel more accomplished and more proud than I ever have in my entire life.

6.       Patience is everything. I’ve learned, from my nephew and from the students I’ve worked with for the past few years, that patience, understanding, and compassion will take you so far with just about anyone and everyone that you meet.

7.       Take each day one step at a time. Myself, and so many people I know, are planners. We plan so far into the future that we forget that today is today. Each day for James and for the kids I’ve met over the summer is just that day. Whether there’s something exciting planned, or whether it’s just a normal day for the books, its special, and it’s worth paying attention to.

8.       Make sure to have fun, even if you feel silly doing it. This past summer, Clelian Heights had a music performance/dance in their gymnasium. Initially, I was experiencing my usual paranoia that everybody was going to laugh at me dancing in public. However, when one of the students invited me out on the floor to dance, not only was I having an absolute blast, but I realized that feeling totally silly was the best part.

9.       Give people the benefit of the doubt. James, and all of the individuals that I’ve met at Clelian Heights, are completely wise beyond their years. They have something special that so many people these days do not have: they have their total innocence. They aren’t cynical, they aren’t negative: they are receptive and positive, and they expect the best out of people, even when those people don’t necessarily deserve it.

10.   Enjoy the simple things. I think that oftentimes people think that life has some complex answer to what being happy is all about. Honestly, though, through all of my experiences with these amazing kids and adults, especially James, I have come to realize that sometimes the answer to being happy and content is something very simple that is right in front of your nose.

Top Ten: Things I Wish You Would Accept, No Questions Asked

October 25, 2011 4 comments

To kick off this new guest post series I am incredibly grateful to Lydia Wayman for her touching and insightful contribution. I would actually love to just cut and paste many of her posts onto my own website, but instead I will encourage you to visit her fantastic blog, Autistic Speaks.

Lydia is a 23-year-old author, speaker, blogger, and advocate from Pittsburgh, PA.  She also has autism.  When she’s not writing, Lydia enjoys reading, sewing and knitting, swimming, and above all, her mom and her cat.

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Top Ten Things That I Wish You Would Accept, No Questions Asked:

1. I can be surprisingly good at one thing (say, remembering conversations precisely as they happened many years after the fact) and surprisingly bad at another thing that you might think should be so much easier (like keeping track of receipts or remembering the procedure for filling a prescription).

2. Just because I have the words to type it does not mean that I have the words to say it.

3. I really do hate to melt down, especially in public. If there were another way out, I would always take it.

4. I never play stupid. If I ask a question or say I don’t get it, it means I don’t get it. Please don’t make me feel dumber by saying that I’m faking it, just because it seems straightforward.

5. What may be slightly bothersome to you, like the waistband on a pair of pants, can cause me to be a witch all day… or at least until I change clothes. If I’m crabby, it’s because something is physically uncomfortable in the sensory realm of things. Until that thing changes, I will continue to be crabby.

6. I can’t control my excitement over cats. So if you mention cats or point out a cat, realize that I’m going to get excited. Let me enjoy it. A little happiness never hurt anyone, eh?

7. I am often completely unaware of self-injurious behaviors. I scratch, hit, bite, and pick often, and much more frequently when I’m agitated for some reason. In the moment, I don’t know that I’m doing it; if made aware, it’s so compulsive that I almost physically can’t stop myself. But using my head, obviously I don’t like the results of it.

8. I am exactly the same person inside regardless of how engaged (or disengaged) I am with the environment and others in it. Yes, you might have to change some things based on how I’m reacting in that moment, but please continue to treat me like the same person that I am.

9. Engagement and happiness do not depend on one another! I can be just as happy off in my own world as I am fully engaged with you. However, a lot depends on you, here. If I’m disengaged and you’re forcing me to “act normal,” then no, I don’t feel very happy. If you’re interacting with me in a way that I can in that moment, then I can be as happy as I’ve ever been.

10. While autism does mean that I am absorbed within myself (aut means self, after all), that doesn’t mean that I don’t want you around. If you can come to me, rather than forcing me out of my world to come to you, then I’d love to let you in. There’s a whole world in here… maybe you should check it out.

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Like what you read? There is much more on Lydia’s blog – and, Lydia has written a book! Living in Technicolor: An autistic’s thoughts on raising a child with autism is a collection of pieces (poetry, blog posts, questions and answers, and recipes).  Her goal is to sell 150 copies in order to raise the money needed to bring her service dog home.  It’s available here and on Kindle here.