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Challenge: Kids with Special Needs

Breakfast with the Boys

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Susanna O'Brien, parent ambassador from Anderson Center for Autism, describes her family's breakfast ritual.


There is a rhythm to the morning since my retirement last June in 2018. My husband has prepared the coffee from the night before, and his good morning kiss signals the start of his day and the option for me to get up or close my eyes again for a bit. Our son Daniel gets up around the same time as me, ready with an embedded routine that he has now incorporated me into. His offering to me is oatmeal on most days with perhaps a switchover to a smoothie once the weather warms up. I need my coffee to kick start my day, and he has now learned that we can just quietly read emails, listen to music and slowly allow the day to unfold and the caffeine to do its job. His internal timer is always set for about 10 minutes, I guess he thinks caffeine works that fast. Then, he announces his work schedule for the day, the evening, the latest buzz feed about endangered species, national parks, the EPA, and all things involving environmental awareness. This is when I am reminded of his intense focus, as he is an individual with autism. His oatmeal is always perfectly cooked, and he delivers it to me with a choice of fruit, cinnamon, and the option of honey or maple syrup. He knows I will choose maple syrup, and the ritual moves forward. He unloads the dishwasher and I load it. The recycling will be assessed and taken care of and he starts the grocery list. We sit and enjoy our breakfast together. This is a far cry from the toddler who used to tantrum and bang his head, as we entered his world of autism. Daniel was and is the poster child for early intervention for autism, as he was able to use his focus and change his own life journey. He is now a beautifully handsome and polite young man of twenty-five, working with special needs individuals with his music talents.

Daniel’s brother Matty comes home most weekends from his residential school, Anderson Center for Autism, in Staatsburg NY. Matty is a twenty-year-old handsome young man with autism who is non-verbal, and enjoys the safety and security of Anderson. Matty’s breakfast routine is different from Daniel’s, so we break the cycle of oatmeal on the weekends. Matty has had a sleep disorder since three years old, and can wake up as early as two am for the day. At Anderson he is greeted by staff who are prepared for his middle of the night antics, we at home just say a prayer that we will get enough sleep the nights Matty is home, that we can function the next day. Regardless of the wake time, it is generally Matty and I down in the kitchen, having HIS breakfast together. Matty is a three egg man with cheese melted on top. This omelette has to cool so I can cut it in appropriate sized pieces. Matty takes his place on the stool at the counter and waits, enjoying his second or third glass of OJ. I stand next to him as his enjoys his eggs because he likes the closeness, but I also need to sometimes catch falling egg, as he tries to stab soft egg pieces with a fork. Spoons can work but we are practicing our fork skills. This will be followed by a video either upstairs in his room or downstairs in the playroom. Sometimes he likes to watch two movies at once. By the time the rest of the house gets up for the day, there will be a second breakfast for all four of us, Matty not at all phased by the fact he has already eaten. After all, it’s been hours. These are a small fraction of the routines in our house, routines David and I have grown up with, raising our two boys with autism.

Breaking routine is always good for our loved ones, to help them expand their often limited repertoires. At Anderson, the house and school staff knows each individual’s routines, honoring them but at the same time looking for ways to elevate their learning curves. Being able to enjoy Matty spending time with us on the weekends and holidays is a gift, even if I don’t get my beauty sleep.

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