Posted in Autism, Down syndrome, Fun Side of Nick

Blog # 9~ Brotherly Love

Nick’s final exam schedule came home in the back pack last week.  I showed it to his brother, Hank who had just finished with his finals at NIU.  We both had a good laugh.

“Mom, remember my junior year of high school and those finals I had? They were a bitch!”

“How can I forget?  That one day you had a final in Trig and English.  Nick had the Blueberry Hill breakfast final.”

“Yea then the next day, it was Genetics and History and Nick’s was like Naperville River walk and shopping.  That was so pathetic!”

Each day that week, Nick got off so easy compared to Hank.  The rivalry of brothers extends past the boundaries of normally developed children.  So this week is all about brotherly love.  One question I am often asked is what the relationship is like between the two.  Rather than try to answer this I decided to go to the source, Hank.  Here is his perspective on the relationship with his younger brother.  Hank is going to be a sophomore at Northern Illinois University (NIU) and will be turning 20 next month.  The boys are 19 months apart in age.

My Brother Nick, By Hank Unnerstall:

“My brother Nick is not like any ordinary brother. There is an extra chromosome in the 21st pair which is the result of Nick having Down syndrome and later, an autism diagnosis that separates him from normal people. Having Nick as a brother has made me open my eyes to life in general and the traits that make me the man I am today.

Some of the earliest memories with Nick start from when I was around 5 years old. Being that young I did not fully understand why my brother was different but I accepted it because he is my brother.  I remember when I began getting older and going to elementary school when my mom and brother would pick me up and drop me off at school. Nick would be doing his normal sound making and hand clapping in public that would sometimes embarrass me in front of my peers. I also recall the times at the old California house we had where Nick and I would start messing around and wrestling with each other but then Nick would take it seriously and start pinching me. His ways of fighting back around that time were much less harmful than it is now when he has one of his meltdowns or I like to call them “monkey boy” episodes. These memories are some examples of tough things in which I have had to deal with in which growing up with my brother.

Hank and Nick at San Francisco Bay….

It would be remiss of me if I didn’t mention a horribly embarrassing time.   Back around my freshman year of high school, Nick and his respite worker and I all went to Arby’s for a late lunch. Once we got our food we sat down, Nick started to make loud and disgruntled sounds when we put his food in front of him. I told him to be quiet in a not so nice tone. Next thing you know he became furious and proceeded to throw his food and random objects like trays, sugar packets and salt shakers all over the place.  We tried to calm him down but he was at the point of no return (aka monkey boy.)   I went on to restrain him and he was pinching, kicking and biting, anything to hurt me.  Somehow we ended wrestling around on the ground and to the other people in the restaurant it must have looked like we were fighting.  This was awkward and embarrassing for me because I was much bigger than him.  I knew it didn’t look right. I just wanted to leave and never show my face again.

That was the worst, or well at least one of them!

 But, there are many traits to Nick.   For example, he is usually a very happy and silly kid who always has a grin on his face. That’s why people love him at school and of course our family despite what we deal with when relating to Nick. Also, even though Nick has autism it does not stop him from being a socially engaging little dude even though he can’t speak. He loves to get attention whether it is him trying to act cute or to negatively do something to get ours. For example if we do not pay Nick any attention for a while he might spray shaving cream over the stairs.

Some of the best memories I can recall having with my brother can be the times where he will just sit next to me on the couch and watch TV with me and just chill out. Also I love to see him dance intensely while listening to the music that I provide him which is usually hip-hop/rap. Basically whenever Nick is in a good mood and happy he always knows how to put a smile on myself and many others faces. Having Nick as a brother has taught me to be a very patient person. I think I got this trait from the numerous times I have had to babysit Nick throughout the years. Also I feel that I have a certain outlook on life after growing up with Nick. For instance, Nick is always happy about the smallest things and he’s the one who is mentally disabled. So how I’ve been trying to live my life is to the fullest and I’m always trying to be as positive as possible no matter what life throws at me.”

Hank and Nick at the Sox game this past weekend……

Oh how they have grown up since the days of past when they use to play sweetly on the living room floor.

My Dad always said they looked like innocent cubs wrestling on the ground… more…. 😉


Those peaceful days long faded as Nick became more frustrated… way to huge meltdowns as he became older.  I applaud Hank putting up with the challenging behaviors of having a brother with not only Down syndrome but also autism.   We did our best to provide support by taking him to sibling workshops along with having him read “The Sibling Slam Book” by Don Meyer.  This is an excellent resource of what it is REALLY like to have a brother or sister with special needs.  We carved out time to just spend with Hank (buddy days) so he wouldn’t feel like Nick, Down syndrome and later autism didn’t consume our family.  I am very proud of Hank and his relationship with his brother.

It has been a crazy, twisted road we have been on but let me just say this….While the sibling relationship takes on a different form with a special needs child, there is no doubt that the bond is there.  I wish that Hank and Nick could have conversations, play video games and throw a baseball like most brothers do.  But that was not meant to be. One thing for certain is that there is a connectedness and love between them.  Last fall Hank took off for NIU. How did I know that Nick missed him?  He walked around with this picture in his hands, never letting it go even as he used the bathroom 🙂

Brotherly love is evident.  That is what is in my noggin this week.  Until next Monday, may your short week be full of love and connections spoken or unspoken.


***Special thanks to my son, Hank my guest blogger extraordinaire 🙂


Posted in Autism, Down syndrome, Education and Special Needs, Speech and Occupational Therapy

Blog #8~ Three Scary Letters: IEP

Blog #8~ Three Scary Letters: IEP

Who would think that the 3 letters IEP could evoke anxiety and trepidation in the hearts of many parents of children with special needs?  IEP stands for Individualized Education Plan.  I used to be one of those scared and frail kittens shaking as I walked into the doorway.  My son, Nick has Down syndrome and autism.  I’ve been through my share of IEP meetings and learned a great deal on how to handle them.  I heard my share of war stories:

“Watch out they will try and get away with cutting your service hours!”

“Why would they do that?”

“Oh the budget constraints and pressure from the school district, that’s why. They are going to say the teacher can address the issues and you don’t need the additional speech therapy hours.”

So enter the neophyte parents into the doorway to face the army of personnel from the school.  The IEP team usually consists of the classroom teacher, case manager, occupational therapist, speech therapist, adapted PE teacher, school counselor, social worker, school nurse and a student services representative. Oh and yes, the parents too. 🙂  I can recall many in the early days crammed in tightly around a table and feeling very clueless in the early days.   The IEP meeting is intended to be a team effort, but sometimes we couldn’t help but feel like it was them against us.

What an IEP exactly?  Here is some information from Wikipedia:

An IEP is designed to meet the unique educational needs of one child, who may have a disability, as defined by federal regulations. The IEP is intended to help children reach educational goals more easily than they otherwise would.  In all cases the IEP must be tailored to the individual student’s needs as identified by the IEP evaluation process, and must especially help teachers and related service providers (such as paraprofessional educators) understand the student’s disability and how the disability affects the learning process. 

The IDEA 2002 requires that an IEP must be written according to the needs of each student who meets eligibility guidelines under the IDEA and state regulations, and it must include the following:

  • The child’s present levels of academic and functional performance
  • Measurable annual goals, including academic and functional goals
  • How the child’s progress toward meeting the annual goals are to be measured and reported to the parents
  • Special education services, related services, and supplementary aids to be provided to the child
  • Schedule of services to be provided, including when the services are to begin, the frequency, duration and location for the provision of services
  • Program modifications or supports provided to school personnel on behalf of the child
  • Least Restrictive Environment data which includes calculations of the amount of time student will spend in regular education settings verses time spent in special education settings each day
  • Explanation of any time the child will not participate along with nondisabled children
  • Accommodations to be provided during state and district assessments that are necessary to the measuring child’s academic and functional performance
  • The student should attend when appropriate. If the student is over 14 they should be invited to be part of the IEP team.
  • Additionally, when the student is 16 years old, a statement of post-secondary goals and a plan for providing what the student needs to make a successful transition is required. This transition plan can be created at an earlier age if desired, but must be in place by the age of 16.

IEPs also include other pertinent information found necessary by the team, such as a health plan or a behavior plan for some students.

The IEP can be daunting on paper, or shall I say more like a ream of paper averaging for Nick around 50 pages total.  The biggest tip I can share is to request all of the reports and intended goals prior to the meeting for your review.  In addition, I suggest meeting with the case manager at least a month before the meeting to discuss proposed goals that will be in the education plan.  That way there are no surprises at the IEP meeting.  If the parent and teacher have a good communication system back and forth there shouldn’t be any.  (For additional support, go to the links and resource pages on this website and look under Wrightslaw, Bridges for Kids-IEP goals and Barb Bateman’s book, Better IEP’s.)

Over the years we have utilized outside advocacy when we felt like the needs of our son might be compromised.  Rewind to 1998 in Houston, when Nick was attending a public pre-school program twice a week and a private special needs pre-school three days a week.  (This was before we could get him in the private school full time). We brought an entourage of very strong women from the private school to advocate for Nick.  Our advocates dissected that IEP and insured that all supports were in place down to the last detail.  That being a nubby rubber cushion for Nick to sit on to keep his core activated and him alerted.  I was floored at the way they spoke up for our son.  I would have never known to boldly ask for these things.

Nick at The Arbor School in Houston, Texas……

The presence of an outside advocate walking in with you at an IEP meeting can certainly make the team members sit up and be on point.  Memorable meeting number two was in 2001 when lived in the east bay area of Northern California. Nick’s language was minimal and he was getting frustrated not being able to communicate verbally.   On this particular occasion we were being met with resistance with regards to the school providing a proper picture communication system and training of staff and parents.  Enter the Executive Director of The Down syndrome Connection by our side.  (DSC is the local Down syndrome support group)  The school’s Physical Therapist asked if she could report first as she had another meeting to attend.  The Social Worker raised her hand and asked if she could go second and then excuse herself.

Without blinking an eye,  the DSC Director calmly said, “Wait a minute, we are all here to discuss Nick’s future, right?  We only have this meeting once a year. The least you can do is stay and be a contributing member to this team.”

No one dared to leave that meeting.  Oh, and yes the communication specialist was immediately put in place to help with the picture communication system for Nick.

Nick in California

There is only one word for these advocates and the others that followed…..Rock Stars!

I have learned from the best.  The frail kitten morphed into a lion that can roar.  Why, because I have to fight for him because he has no voice. I know Nick the best and what works for him.  I don’t have to agree with the team.  In my matter of fact approach I simply state my parent concerns and have them put in writing in the IEP.  So parents, if you don’t agree, then push your chair back, state that you don’t agree and do not sign it. You may have to take it to the next level if you get a push back.  That’s when you use the two words that can evoke the most fear…Due Process!  (Thank you Kendra, Nick’s Private Occupational Therapist for giving me the courage to do these things.)

Nick at private occupational therapy with Kendra

More fun with Kendra

And please, do not call me “The Mom”, or “Nick’s Mom.”  The name is Mrs. Unnerstall.  Yes, IEP meetings can be scary.  But parents, don’t be fraidy cats.  Just get prepared!   Request those reports and goals ahead of time.  Schedule a meeting with the case manager before hand to make sure you are on the same page.  Communicate with the teacher so there are no surprises.  And finally if you don’t feel supported, then bring an advocate to the meeting.   That’s what is in my noggin this week.  Until next Monday, may you find the inner lion within you and fight the good fight!



Posted in Down syndrome

Blog #7 Mama Mia

Mother’s Day circa 1969, my brother Tom and younger sister Laura and I get up and make breakfast for our Mom.  It takes us at least 3 or 4 tries and subsequent tosses of undercooked and burnt pancakes into the trash. But finally we get the griddle just right and pull off a couple of edible ones.  The tray is prepared with orange juice, her favorite strawberries and a small, clear vase filled with bright orange pomegranate flowers from the tree on our backyard patio.  This year I had made a gift at school that I was especially proud of.  I found the most perfect brown conch seashell and stuffed the opening with cotton and covered it in red velvet to make a tiny pin cushion.  This was my favorite gift I had ever given my mom.  Oh how proud the three of us were for our accomplishment.

As a mother of two boys, I think back on what were my favorite presents.  Without a doubt it was the special gifts and handmade cards they each made at school over the years.  I still use the recipe box that Nick made in preschool with a picture of him clapping on the front of it. Hank handcrafted a colorful ceramic bowl that I treasure. Seeing their faces so proud is perhaps one of the greatest gifts of all.

Over the years I have been asked often on what it takes to be a mother of a child with special needs. In many ways it is the same as for a typical child but it takes a greater amount of time, energy and perseverance. Milestones are not met and checked off the chart at the yearly physicals like a typical child. A large chunk of the schedule is carved out for working with your child at home and taking them to physical, occupational and speech therapy. Having my son, Hank just 19 months older gave me a good idea of what the benchmarks were supposed to be.  However, I realized quickly that Nick was going to do things in his own time.  Nick’s time was much slower than a snail’s pace.

Nick ( 2 months old) with Grandma Babs

Let me pause and offer the quick facts about Down syndrome. Wikipedia  states that Down syndrome  also known as trisomy 21, is a chromosomal condition caused by the presence of all or part of an extra 21st chromosome It is named after John Langdon Down, the British physician who described the syndrome in 1866.  The incidence of Down syndrome is estimated at 4.6 per 10,000 births. Often Down syndrome is associated with a delay in cognitive ability and physical growth, and a particular set of facial characteristics. The average IQ of young adults with Down syndrome is around 50, compared to normal children with an IQ of 100. A large proportion of individuals with Down syndrome have a severe degree of intellectual disability.

Nick with his brother Hank, with his low muscle tone we constantly had to prop him up for pictures.

Individuals with Down syndrome may have some or all of the following physical characteristics: microgenia (an abnormally small chin)[ an unusually round face, macroglossi (protruding or oversized tongue), an almond shape to the eyes caused by an epicanthic fold of the eyelid, upslanting palpebral fissures (the separation between the upper and lower eyelids), shorter limbs, a single transverse palmar crease (a single instead of a double crease across one or both palms), poor muscle tone, and a larger than normal space between the big and second toes.

Brushfield spots are the tiny flecks that shine in the iris. One of the characteristics of  some individuals with Down syndrome. By the way Nick grabbed the camera and did his own self shot here 😉

Health concerns for individuals with Down syndrome include a higher risk for congenital heart defects, recurrent ear infections that may lead to hearing loss, obstructive sleep apnea, thyroid dysfunctions, and obesity.”


Here is how Nick fit with his development:

Crawling- Average age= 14 months (range 9-19 months) / Nick= 24 months.

Sitting while supported with own arms- average age= 8 months (range 5-15 months) / Nick= 12 months.

Eating solids-Average age= 8 months (range 5-18 months) / Nick=40 months

Walking independently-Average=23 months (range 13-48 months) / Nick=40 months.


Nick at age 9 months with Grandpa Jim. He still looks like a rag doll….

While Nick developed much slower than the averages above, he did hit the marks and this proud mama can still taste the sweet victories of each glorious triumph!

Yay, he is sitting up supporting himself with his arms at age 1!

Who would have ever predicted that the low tone boy with wobbly legs that didn’t take off walking until 3 ½ years would run like a cheetah and win a silver medal at the Special Olympics in the 100 yard dash. And the year before, in fifth grade he became a state gold medalist in the softball throw down in Bloomington.  Nick never got the significance of his medals.  He was more excited about standing on the podium and dancing side to side as they played the Special Olympics music theme on a portable jam box.  On the other hand, I was snapping photos like a crazed paparazzi photographer. 😉 He fought hard as we pushed him constantly for 12 years….. and look he won……Oh *Mama Mia!

State Special Olympics Gold Medalist!

Up on the top of the podium, taking a bow!

That’s what is in my noggin this week.  Until next week, may the milestones you strive for and meet be the sweetest of victories :).

~Teresa (aka Mama Teresa)

*Mamma mia (literally “my mother”) is an Italian interjection, used in situations denoting various kinds of emotions of surprise, fear, rejection, and joy.

Posted in Autism, Down syndrome, Speech and Occupational Therapy

Blog #6 The Nick Connection

Once upon a time, Nick only had Down syndrome.  I am unable to say with any certainty when the light switch flipped.  The symptoms of autism didn’t appear after any round of immunizations or before the age of 3.  In fact there were many symptoms that Nick didn’t have.

Autism is defined by the Mayo Clinic as, One of a group of serious developmental problems called autism spectrum disorders (ASD) that appear in early childhood — usually before age 3. Though symptoms and severity vary, all autism disorders affect a child’s ability to communicate and interact with others. Children with autism generally have problems in three crucial areas of development — social interaction, language and behavior. But because autism symptoms vary greatly, two children with the same diagnosis may act quite differently and have strikingly different skills. In most cases, though, severe autism is marked by a complete inability to communicate or interact with other people. Some children show signs of autism in early infancy. Other children may develop normally for the first few months or years of life but then suddenly become withdrawn, become aggressive or lose language skills they’ve already acquired.”

Nick has always found a way to connect with people.  Years ago, when he was around 2 years old, a woman approached me in the local Kroger supermarket.  She went out of her way to tell me how good Nick’s eye contact was and how engaging his personality was.  Countless doctors, therapists and teachers have made the same recognition over the years since then. He thrives around people and having fun with them.

Being silly pouring water on Grandma Babs

Fun with his Dad and brother, Hank

As I mentioned earlier, there was no flip of the switch.   A few things stood out around the age of 4. At the time, we lived in northern California. He started rocking more back and forth and became increasingly intolerant of having his hair cut.  Then there was the trip to Half Moon Bay where he began to pinch his cheeks hard as we walked across the coarse grain sandy beach. I suspected these behaviors were sensory related.  To make sure all the bases were covered I took him in to be evaluated for autism at age 5.  The Mayo clinic states that, “Though each child with autism is likely to have a unique pattern of behavior, these are some common autism symptoms:  

Social skills

  • Fails to respond to his or her name
  • Has poor eye contact
  • Appears not to hear you at times
  • Resists cuddling and holding
  • Appears unaware of others’ feelings
  • Seems to prefer playing alone — retreats into his or her “own world”


  • Starts talking later than age 2, and has other developmental delays by 30 months
  • Loses previously acquired ability to say words or sentences
  • Doesn’t make eye contact when making requests
  • Speaks with an abnormal tone or rhythm — may use a singsong voice or robot-like speech
  • Can’t start a conversation or keep one going
  • May repeat words or phrases verbatim, but doesn’t understand how to use them


  • Performs repetitive movements, such as rocking, spinning or hand-flapping
  • Develops specific routines or rituals
  • Becomes disturbed at the slightest change in routines or rituals
  • Moves constantly
  • May be fascinated by parts of an object, such as the spinning wheels of a toy car
  • May be unusually sensitive to light, sound and touch and yet oblivious to pain

Of the symptoms listed above, Nick displayed none in the social skills category.  The physician noted that his slow speech development was probably due to having Down syndrome and Verbal Apraxia (a neurologically based condition that is characterized by difficulties planning and producing the complex set of oral movements necessary for intelligible speech. For more information on Apraxia click on my favorites section, a new book, Speaking of Apraxia- A Parent’s Guide to Apraxia of Speech by Leslie Lindsay has just been published.  Regarding behavior, Nick did exhibit a few of the symptoms but never was fascinated with spinning any objects or sensitive to light or pain.  So cut to the chase, after the screening the conclusion was he did not have autism.

Fast forward 6 years later, his speech hadn’t improved and the behaviors were growing more severe.  Nick’s speech was limited.  Imagine someone putting duct tape across your mouth and trying to navigate the world.  With no voice he would get frustrated and turn to throwing such things as a chair across the room or breaking a glass across the floor.  Worse yet, he would have meltdowns that drew blood and bruises when he would pinch, kick and bite. At Gi Gi’s Playhouse group time (a local Down syndrome support group,) I began to notice that he was playing more by himself and primarily with any musical toy he could get his hands on dancing side to side.

This was more than just Down syndrome.  Next stop Little Friends Center for Autism.  The second screening was much more comprehensive and included a team of therapists who individually assessed him.  Voila, diagnosis confirmed.  I can say first hand that the evaluation methods had improved tenfold.  I suspect that is one of the reasons why the incidences of autism cases have risen so significantly over the past five years.

So back to the Nick connection, because he has always been highly social it was hard to see that somewhere in the midst autism had crept in.  The tapping, rocking, hand flapping, humming and the sounds of musical toys had become white noise to us like the dryer running in the background. We had become immune to them all. To us he was the guy who won over the hearts of everyone he touched.  He was the fun guy who can click with everyone. When he was much younger he had a belly flash club.  He wouldn’t see his Aunt Laura or my friend Sally for months and yet when he would reunite he greeted them by lifting his shirt up and flashing his belly.

Nick getting ready to belly flash!

He likes to give a high five, rub elbows, noses and he loves to get raspberries. Oh and let me not forget the burps, fake sneezes and what we like to call “force farting” to get your attention. For that I am grateful, well maybe not the force farting (Al’s term given for when Nick pushes out one to get a rise out of us) 😉 but I am glad he is so engaging.  And I have to say those who know Nick can attest to the fact that he can replicate exact sneezes after you do yours. Even Aunt Ali’s tiny, high pitched achoo!

Elbows… with his teacher, Rob


The fact that he can make those connections warms my heart as his mother.  That’s what is in my noggin this week, until next Monday….May you find those special ways to connect with those around you!