What was I thinking, buying my sixth grader a Smartphone?

When I was a child psychologist, people used to pay for my parenting advice. My kids now find that hilarious. I mess up, but that sad fact shouldn’t prevent me from helping others.

My sixth grader has a smartphone. There. I admitted it. And my fourth grader has already saved up enough money to buy hers at the same age her brother bought his: fifth grade. It’s only fair.

Now I feel like I have to explain how this happened. So skip the following three paragraphs if you’re a sad sack like me. Parents of those without smart phones, read on for just one of the million excuses middle school parents have for this mistake.

As James started fifth grade, I vowed to hold out. I idolized a friend who’d reluctantly bought her eighth grader a flip phone to take on his class trip. But a few months in, James, who has Autism Spectrum Disorder, asked to borrow my phone to call a friend. Then another friend, and another friend. Social interaction! When the friends’ parents answered their cell phones, he politely asked to speak to the friends. Maturity! Next thing I knew, he asked to take a solo bike ride on the levee near our house. Independence!

Years before, we’d given up our landline. To encourage James’s welcome burst of social interaction, maturity, and independence, the natural next step was his own phone. Still, I hesitated. Screen addiction is a major concern among teens and adults with autism. I pictured James degenerating from a sporty tween into a flabby, pallid barnacle on our sofa. What’s more, the dangers of social media in middle school are well-documented, autistic or not. 

As I researched phones, though, the simplest alternative by far turned out to be an older generation iPhone. So in addition to a phone I’d be buying James a mini computer. On which he could Google whatever he liked. And watch You Tube.

My husband discovered the Screen Time app on the iPhone, which allows a parent to set some restrictions. Control! We went ahead with the phone. Within a month, James figured out how to get around Screen Time. Despite his real efforts to follow my limits, James’s Internet urge was so strong that I had to hide the phone when I didn’t want him to use it. Like my own parents hid the bourbon. James turned out to be a good seeker. He can’t find his pants, but he can find his phone.

I hadn’t been looking for something new to argue about. But the genie was out of the bottle, and the phone had become yet another source of conflict. 

I should have known better. My own parents did, having bought me a 15-year-old Datsun rather than a 747 for my first car. Kids learn best when they start low and go slow. We roll over, then crawl, then walk, then run, then bike, then drive, then fly. Where is the Datsun of cell phones?

The good news is, innovators are starting to see the appeal of a middle ground between two stringed-up cans and an iPhone. Last week, I tried out Relay, which is a sort of combination walkie talkie and one-button phone. More options already exist, and more are on the way. The choice isn’t binary, as it seemed to me last year. 

If I want to, I can demote James from an iPhone to a device that’s more phone, less computer. Better, I can start my younger child with a more limited device than James’s. And face her wrath. Even better, I can encourage other parents to learn from my rookie mistakes and seek out their own Datsun phones in the first place. Cool kids be damned. 

By giving us the iPhone, technology solved a lot of little problems: getting lost, losing touch, missing out. Maybe technology can save our kids from the huge problems of screen addiction and the mental health sequelae of early smart phone use.

Relay is half-price for Amazon Prime Day, July 12-19! Click here for details.

The Parenting Regret That Caught Me By Surprise

The pacifier was a sign of weakness, of immaturity, of difference…. James was attending a regular pre-Kindergarten, and I thought he needed to look like a regular pre-Kindergartner. Even in bed.

I took away my son’s pacifier when he was four years old, and I still regret it. 

It seemed like the perfect time. We’d just watched Toy Story 3, in which Andy sorts through his childhood belongings before heading to college. He decides to store the important ones, including Buzz Lightyear, in the attic. 

My son James, who has autism, took an interest in our attic. What was up there? What could we put up there?

I jumped at the chance. From his toddler years, I’d done my best to restrict the pacifier to his bed. I was a child psychologist. The very thought of running into one of my patients around town, pacifier-sucking behemoth in tow, made me want to hide my head. 

Plus, everything I’d read cautioned about pacifier use once kids started getting their permanent teeth.

The pacifier was a sign of weakness, of immaturity, of difference. I knew James had some developmental delays, but when James was four the idea that he had autism was relatively new. James was attending a regular pre-Kindergarten, and I thought he needed to look like a regular pre-Kindergartner. Even in bed.

So James and I packed his few remaining pacifiers into a Ziploc bag and made a trip up to the attic. “Where do we put them?” he asked, looking around at the vast, dusty, hot, mostly empty space.

I suggested a ledge near the attic entrance, “so we can visit.” He set them down, gave them a little pat, and said, “Bye, passes.” He climbed down the attic stairs and headed to the playroom, seeming none the worse for wear. 

James never asked for his pacifier again, but that didn’t mean he didn’t miss it. Like lots of kids with autism, he had uneven language development. At that point, he’d still never told me he was hungry, never told me he was thirsty. Even though he could give the proper technical name for any construction truck he might spot around town.

When he had a strong need he’d have a tantrum, and I’d have to figure it out. 

I have a family history of premature pacifier disposal. My older brother loved his pacifier, but my mother decided he needed to give it up at barely age two. A friend suggested she take my brother to the zoo and feed it to the baby raccoons, reasoning that they needed it more than he did. My brother had nightmares about the baby raccoons for months afterward.

I knew all about the raccoons. Letting James use a pacifier for two extra years was my way of learning from my mother’s mistake. If I’d known then what I know now, I’d have let him keep it as long as he wanted and use it whenever and wherever he wanted. 

The pacifier wasn’t a problem, but a solution.

Looking back through home movies recently, I confirmed something: James’ younger sister started sucking her fingers before she was an hour old. 

“Wow, look at her,” I say in the video. “So strong.” Seeing the video reminded me of how competent infants can be. 

I saw an infant at a Mardi Gras parade, which is not at all unusual or frowned upon here in New Orleans. The baby girl rubbed her forehead against her mother’s chest in the Baby Bjorn, soothing herself to sleep as the marching bands blared. It was 1:00, after all. Naptime. 

That kind of self-regulation is so hard for people with autism. So hard for James. James used the pacifier in his bed, to help him cope with the stress of being tired and of being alone in his room. With all that was going wrong with James, that led to his autism diagnosis, his self-soothing with the pacifier was something right. 

What’s two extra years? If James had done as his sister did with her fingers, kept sucking his pacifier for comfort until age six, then given it up on his own, the whole thing would’ve been a success story for James. I shouldn’t have butted in.

I’ve developed a rule of thumb. It started with my acceptance of James’ autism and my own limitations in coping with it, even though autism was my specialty for ten years before his birth. 

My first choice is always to find what James is doing right, and bolster that. Tackling a problem – which might exist only in my mind – is always the last resort. 

8 Things You Need To Know Before Giving Your Child Psychiatric Medication

ice cream

8 Things You Need to Know Before Giving Your Child Psychiatric Medication


Medication has been an important part of the complex process of taking care of my son. I credit one psychiatric medication with getting him out of his bed and into the kind of mischief you’d expect from a 4-year-old, like appearing on top of the refrigerator. I blame another medication for temporarily turning him into a dozing Eeyore.


A Work in Progress

mardi gras float

My six-year-old daughter Margot has a problem with what she calls “boy-yee girls.” This chafes me, because my favorite aunt was such a girl. When I was a child, my parents talked about my aunt’s “roommate” accompanying us on beach vacations. Betsy and Jane were two foul-mouthed dames who drank Jack Daniel’s and chain-smoked into the evening, then slept until noon in the same bed. Come on. I made sure my children knew the truth from the start, so they’d consider my aunt’s relationship as normal as mine.

We’re not the most progressive family in the world, but we’re certainly not the least. We live in New Orleans, and our families go back several generations here. The first wedding we attended as a family, though, united two men. Racism, sexism, classism, hetero-centrism, at our house, are past-tense problems. At least that’s how we talk about them with our kids.

But this “boy-yee girl” thing really bothers me, and my daughter can tell. She first used the phrase on a woman I’ll call Cathy, a counselor at camp this summer. I’m sure Cathy noticed Margot giving her a wide berth and a wary stare, but I never got to know her well enough to talk it over. And I guess that’s the point. Aunts Betsy and Jane have passed away, so Margot doesn’t have anyone in her daily life from whom to learn about gender presentation in all its varieties. At best, Margot seems to sense that something’s out of whack. At worst, she seems scared.

Mostly it’s about aesthetics, I think. Margot is a kid who notices things. If there’s a muffin top in a crowd of 200, she’ll point it out. Once, in church, she leaned over and said through clenched teeth, “Mom, there’s a lady in the next pew who’s wearing no shirt.” Actually Margot had a point, because the woman was wearing a strapless top in an Episcopal church, which is almost as questionable.

Margot has had more exposure to differences than I did, so I figure she has a head start on learning tolerance. I have one memory of gender bending from my childhood, and it was Mardi Gras, and he was only dressing up. A girly boy. I was three years old, and that’s prime time for children to learn about gender differences.

I ran out of the bathroom, smack into her. Blue mini skirt, fuzzy knees, red-and-white tube socks, red high heels. Or was it him? I stepped back and looked up higher. Frilly white blouse, blonde braids with red ribbons resting on crooked bosoms. Dirty blonde mustache. As the cigarette smoke hit my nostrils, he smiled and held out his arms for a hug. Red lipstick on his teeth. His wide embrace blocked the way to the kitchen.

Was that Mr. Jack?

What was going on here? Could a man just turn into a lady? What if Dad did that? Would he turn out to be a certain lady like Aunt Shirley? Would he be the mom, then? Wait. Could Mom turn into a man? Or could she turn into something else, like a bear? Would she take care of me then, or hurt me?

“Honey,” my mom reassured me,  “we wear costumes at Mardi Gras time. You’re a princess, and Jack’s a lady. I think he might be Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz. You love The Wizard of Oz, right?” In truth, I’d only seen a bit of the movie because I was scared of those flying monkeys in the hats and coats. Cross-species dressing.

My son had a similar reaction to clowns at the same age. Once his panic subsided, he asked me, swallowing, “What are clowns? Are they … birds or something?” It takes awhile to distinguish the irregular from the threatening.

Nowadays Margot’s reaction looks less like fear, and more like distaste. And that’s no better. There’s a tradition in our neighborhood, even though we’re not on the Mardi Gras parade route. On a weekday afternoon a couple of weeks before Mardi Gras, the Jefferson City Buzzards, an all-male walking parade dating back to 1890, struts around our neighborhood dressed as women. My husband used to be a member. It’s roughly fifty men, exuberant after a liquid lunch. Last year, when Margot was five, a man in a black leather-and-lace teddy and thigh-high leather boots shimmied up to her and handed her a string of pink Mardi Gras beads. She took the beads and smiled, then backed away. Was she scared?

“Mom, that man has a pretty outfit but he’s too hairy for it.”

He offended her aesthetic sense, is what happened. She reminded me of my mother when she first saw a man in skinny jeans.

But that wasn’t the end of it. This summer at camp, Margot met Cathy, who was entrusted with the job of head counselor. She was also the woodworking counselor, wielding the sort of tools that impressed both my children.

At first glance, Cathy looked male. The first sign she was female was her name. Her hair was shaved on the sides, she wore roomy cargo shorts and tee shirts, and her ears were pierced in a manner that’s so uncommon in my circles I finally had to break down and research it online. It’s called “stretching,” which means that her earlobes were pierced in the conventional way, and then gradually stretched to accommodate an earring about the size of a washer. It creates a hole big enough to look through.

Despite our superficial differences, I immediately identified Cathy as my kind of person. Each time she had to discipline my impulsive son she did so by touching him, and speaking in a voice only he could hear. She never involved me. James listened to Cathy, even said she was his favorite counselor.

I asked Margot about Cathy and she said, “Cathy’s okay, I just don’t like her.”

“Does it have something to do with how Cathy looks?” I asked, and Margot bristled. She knew she was setting herself up for a lecture.

“No, Mommy, it doesn’t. I know girls can be boy-yee and boys can be girly. They’re born that way. Okay?” So something had sunk in.

If the stretched earlobes were what disturbed Margot, that was cool with me. The whole stretching process, although safe, seems painful and much too permanent for my taste.

If Margot disliked Cathy for being a boyish-looking girl, that was going to be harder to take.

“Is it her earrings?” I asked.

“Maybe,” said Margot. My hopes surged.

“Well, how about we ask her how it’s done and if it hurts?” I replied, using my usual strategy of information-gathering to fight a fear.

“No,” said Margot. “But can we ask her what kind of underwear she wears?”

In other words, she wanted to know how deep this boy-yee thing went.

It was fine with me that Margot was curious. What bothered me was her behavior. Margot avoided Cathy all week, so she never got to know her like my son did. While James sat next to Cathy at the campfire, hollering obnoxious camp songs, Margot brooded on the fringes. All because of the way Cathy looked.

It feels like I’ve failed both Margot and Cathy.

The culture has changed between my childhood and Margot’s, but brain development hasn’t. Children still learn about all types of differences over time. So maybe I’m the one who needs to relax.

I hope Cathy’s back next summer, and that Margot can have another chance.

Author’s note: It’s only been five months since summer camp, so I can’t say we’ve made any progress. That’s okay, though. In the transition from child psychologist to mother, I’m getting used to being more patient than I ever thought I’d have to be.

Lynn Adams lives in New Orleans with her husband and two children. A former child psychologist, she now writes parenting essays about child development and Autism Spectrum Disorders. Her work has appeared in Brain, Child; Salon; Scary Mommy; and other places in print and online. Find more of her work at www.lynnadamsphd.com.

Cold Inside


Before I had children, Autism Spectrum Disorders were my specialty. I reduced my child psychology practice to half time after James came along, and soon realized I couldn’t close the door on autism at the end of the workday, because it was in my house.

I first heard about autism in high school, at a children’s residential facility where I volunteered. Sam was lying on his back and spinning around in circles by kicking his feet, as if on an invisible merry-go-round. He wasn’t brushing his teeth alongside the other children, because he was having too much fun at his own carnival.

I determined to become part of Sam’s carnival, and eventually learned to play with kids whose parents thought they couldn’t play. So 20 years later, why did I find myself on our playroom floor, my back against the sofa, writing down everything James said, while he did his own thing? “You sit on that. You like that. You put it down there,” I transcribed, noting he had his pronouns reversed. I hope I took the time to talk to James as I wrote, but I don’t remember.

My son was a loner. It didn’t come naturally to him to connect with anyone, including – and maybe especially – me. Instead of crying or looking for help in a tough situation, James mounted a noisy protest. Every tantrum was a puzzle. When he started talking, my first sign that he’d hurt himself was hearing him screech, “No ice!” as he ran away from me. If I figured out he had a pebble in his shoe, captured him, and removed it, he calmed down immediately.

By contrast, every time I kissed James’ cheek, he would rub the spot with his hand, looking away, like a teenager. He was unaffectionate. He had sensory issues. Of course. He had autism.

I knew that underlying health issues could be a source of toddlers’ developmental and behavioral problems. So, I arranged a medical evaluation for various thyroid, allergy, immune, and metabolic problems that might have been an easy fix. And the doctor found something. We discovered that one of James’ vaccines hadn’t been effective, exposing him to frequent upper respiratory infections. And all that time I thought he had allergies. He got a booster shot and the colds went away, but the autism didn’t.

That’s right, I’m the mom who thought that a vaccine might cure her child’s autism.

Practically speaking, as part of these work-ups three-year-old James had to have his blood drawn three times in three weeks. Although James freaked out the first time, the second and third times he patiently held out his little arm as the nurse poked around for his tiny veins. She kept looking up at his face, waiting for him to blow his stack. He never did.

The nurse remarked, “This is the best-behaved child I’ve ever seen!” Then she gave him a jumbo pack of Starburst and a full roll of stickers.

Her compliment felt like an accusation. I was still out of breath from forcefully extracting James from under the Lego table in the waiting room, where he’d been holed up catlike for a half hour. Before that, I’d pried him out from under the car seat, and then carried his noodle-like body through the parking lot. Back at home, he’d resisted brushing his teeth, getting into his clothes, leaving the house, and getting into the car. The whole way out to the suburban office he’d looked out the window, exclaiming with joy anytime he saw a construction truck. But each time a truck disappeared from his view, he’d kick the back of my seat.

James was a good boy, just not for me.

As my office became a refuge and I accepted a patient who would eventually become James’ first friend, I began to wonder whether I was ever meant to be a mother. One evening, my infant daughter asleep on my shoulder and a glass of gin in my hand, I made a suggestion to my husband Bruce. Maybe I was better off, and James was better off, and the community would be better off, with me as a psychologist rather than as a mother.

A parent-ectomy. That’s what Bruno Bettelheim proposed in his 1967 book, The Empty Fortress, a book my parents might have read if I’d had autism. Early professionals observed that mothers whose children had autism were cold and distant: Refrigerator Mothers. But sometimes it feels better to focus on doing right by your child, than to interact with him. Contemporary studies refer to “parental stress” and investigate the effects of having a child with autism on the parents.

Instead of condemning me for my cold-hearted suggestion, Bruce appealed to my sense of reason. “Think of your favorite families you’ve worked with, your favorite adults with autism,” he suggested. “What did they all have in common? Good psychologists, or good parents?”

Kids in our town had some choices when it came to psychologists. But James had only one mother.

Around this time, I came across a newspaper article. Researchers at the Yale Child Study Center, my old stomping ground, found that administering oxytocin, “the love hormone,” led to activation in the brain’s social regions in a small sample with mild autism. I wondered where I could get some oxytocin for James, and then flagellated myself for wondering.

James needed a mother’s love, and I was giving him everything but that.

I stopped reading about autism, and started reading about motherhood. I especially liked Erma Bombeck, who wrote, “A child needs your love most when he deserves it least.” At first I took my fondness for this quote as further evidence that I’d become a refrigerator mother, but later I realized how many kids it’s kept alive.

So James didn’t know how to connect with people. I did. It was time to show him how.

Neglecting to tell Bruce where I’d learned it, I pulled out the trusty “basket hold,” a form of restraint I’d used during my internship in a children’s psychiatric hospital. It was the only way to get ahold of James. You grab the child’s wrists, cross them in front of him, and pin his body in your lap with your legs crossed over his legs and his head under your chin. It’s a hug you can’t refuse.

As I held James I would say things like, “I know you’re mad because your toy broke. No biting, though. That hurts me. You’re my boy. Mommy loves you no matter what.”

I was talking to myself, more than James.

Over time, I didn’t have to hold James so tight to keep him near me. When he was really upset, he’d often give up his struggles and sob on my shoulder. Then I really felt like his mother. 

One day after a basket hold I kissed James wetly on the cheek, and he immediately wiped it off. I decided to ask him about it. How did I know why he did it?

“Did you wipe that kiss off?”

“No,” James said, still rubbing.

“Well, what are you doing?” I asked.

“Rubbing it in. That way it makes you love me more.”

Now at this point, James had his pronouns reversed. So, he probably meant, “It makes me love youmore.” But who cares what direction he was heading? The fact that the word “love” was in his vocabulary suggested I was on the right track.

Author’s Note: James still struggles with the stresses of everyday life, and our family struggles along with him. But I don’t dwell on the word “autism” as much as I did when I started writing this piece. Instead, I focus on James’ love of guitar and flag football, and on his strong relationships with his family, neighbors, teachers, and friends. I’m proud to say he’s the only member of our family who’s consistently described as “sweet.”

Bio: Lynn Adams is now a full-time wife and mother in New Orleans. Her work has appeared on Salon, Brain, Child, and The Mid, as well as in the anthology, It’s Really 10 Months: Special Delivery. Find more at www.lynnadamsphd.com.

Dr. Mom

Lynn W. Adams, Ph.D

When my son James was between the ages of two and four, he had a big problem with hand dryers. In most public restrooms the instructions read: 1) Press button, 2) Place hands under nozzle, 3) Rub hands briskly together. Occasionally, some wise guy has added: 4) Wipe hands on pants. James’ responses to hand dryers included: high-decibel screams, pants-wetting, crawling under stall doors, and wedging himself into the backseat like a molly screw. The apex of our hand dryer horrors took place in a roadside McDonald’s the summer James was four. We were returning to New Orleans from a hand-dryer-heavy trip to North Carolina and James was squirming around the booth after picking at his hamburger bun, his little thighs going squeak- squeak on the yellow molded plastic.Instead of gullibly asking if he had to pee-pee, I just said,“Honey, let’s go use the potty.” Our family of four crept toward the promisingly labeled Family Restroom, James clinging catlike to any obstacle in our path.

The closer we got, the louder he shouted. “No, I don’t have to
go! Please, please don’t make me go in there! No hand dryer! I really don’t have to go!” I smiled apologetically at a woman as I peeled his hand off of her purse strap, but she didn’t smile back.

Five minutes later, when we emerged disheveled and unrelieved from the restroom, James now desperately grabbing his crotch, my husband suggested we beat a hasty retreat in case someone had called the authorities. Indeed, all eyes were on us. We dumped our fries and split.

Before I was James’ mother, I worked as a child psychologist. I wanted to ease his suffering at the McDonald’s, but I was also embarrassed that I couldn’t manage my kid. At first, I had tried that old bachelor’s-level technique, avoidance. I avoided public restroom changing tables by performing clandestine diaper changes in the car seat , in the hatchback, behind a bush, and in the stroller. We got by until James was toilet trained. This new accomplishment came with, in addition to Bob the Builder underwear, a need to use public restrooms. There’s only so much pee-peeing in a bush that polite society can tolerate. When I think I’m having a hard time handling things, I just remember the day I helped one child poop very tidily in a bush with the other one strapped to my back. Twice.

This became my public restroom survival kit: a clutch of paper towels, a few blank post-it notes, and some post-it notes that read: “HAND DRYER OUT OF ORDER. PLEASE DO NOT USE.” Our routine went like this: 1) Enter restroom warily; 2) Post out-of-order signs on any and all hand dryers; 3) Place a post-it over the sensor for the automatic flush; 4) Take care of business; 5) Wipe hands on paper towels and collect supplies; 6) Move on. It worked well, but like most irrational fears, this one mushroomed each time we avoided it. At first, it was okay if we didn’t use the hand dryer. Next, no one in the restroom could use it. Eventually, going to a place that might have a hand dryer became too much to bear. I found myself living the pages of my Abnormal Psychology textbook.

A large portion of my psychological training came from proponents of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT), a very tidy approach to problem-solving. You identify a problem and perhaps any mistaken assumption associated with it, and then change either what comes before (triggers) or what comes after (rewards or punishments). I first used CBT to train my cat, Walter, to use his scratching post. Instead of whacking him for scratching the sofa, I put a container of treats on top of his post and gave him one every time he scratched it. It was humane and effective. My textbook made the point that a mollusk could be trained to clap its shell on command. Wow, I thought at the time. What can’t CBT do?

Oblivious, I hunkered down. In an attempt to render the scary hand dryer more friendly, we studied up. We printed out pictures of various hand dryer models and posted them around the house. My sweet husband made several hand dryers from boxes, and mounted them in our bathrooms. I came to expect James’ soft, earnest “vvvvvvvvv” sound effect after the flush and the splashing. In Psychology Land, we call this Systematic Desensitization: exposing the child to closer and closer approximations of the feared object to build up tolerance. I stopped short of planting him under the hand dryer in my office building with a pile of M&Ms, but I kept up the campaign from August to November.

One would think that four months of earnest intervention from a psychologist / mother would suffice. When it ended, though, the success was clearly James’ alone. One day, James had to go to the hospital for a medical test. On the way there in the car, we talked about his reward. I had some suggestions: ice cream, a smoothie, the playground, the vacuum cleaner aisle at Lowe’s, the guitar store, a nearby construction site. James looked out the window for such a long time that I’d given up hope of an answer.

As we pulled into a parking space he said, still looking out the window,“No, Mommy, I think I’d like to go to the grocery store and use the hand dryer.”

About the Author: Lynn Adams lives in New Orleans with her husband, son, and daughter. After studying at the Yale Child Study Center and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill TEACCH program, she worked as a child psychologist specializing in Autism Spectrum Disorders. Being part-time psychologist, part-time homemaker seemed like the best of both worlds. It wasn’t, and now she is a full-time mom. She is a co-author of Autism: Understanding the Disorder and Understanding Asperger Syndrome and High Functioning Autism.