Posted in Autism, Fun Side of Nick

Blog #16~ Up, Up and Away!

Blog #16~ Up, Up and Away!

A question I often get is, “How does Nick do traveling and on airplanes?” I mean he has Down syndrome and autism, really can you do that?  Short answer, he does really well.  But that has been crafted over many years.

It wasn’t always so easy.  An overseas flight from San Francisco to London with Nick (then a five year old) and not yet toilet trained was daunting.  Prep for such an endeavor started with a bland diet twenty-four hours before take-off.  Follow that up with a dose of Imodium AD to act as a cork, much like the bears that go into hibernation with their butt plugs in place.  While this takes care of #2’s, the issue of #1 had to be addressed.  We padded Nick down with 5 pairs of Pull-ups and as the flight progressed, I would take him to the bathroom and like an onion skin, peel the soaked ones off him.  Naturally the backpack contained dry pants just in case, tricky but it can be done.  It also helped that we flew Virgin Airlines. Richard Branson does know how to fly his customers in style.  Cheers to the free cocktails, and private movie screens at every passenger’s seat!

 We give a thumbs up to Richard Branson….

The iconic Tower Bridge in London……..

Last weekend, we took off for the Overbey Family Reunion held in Oregon. Here is a glimpse of an experience traveling with Nick. I love all the great people watching, don’t you?   Yes we make fun of people and give them nicknames.  First stop through security where the perfect gag me, VIP” family cuts to the front of the line with their noses up in the air. (Insert my eye roll, gag me, whatever here “Oh you are first class and we are steerage.”) My older son rattles out, “I’m pretty sure their shit doesn’t stink.” No kidding Hank.

Nick compliantly takes his shoes off and sets them in the plastic bin. We sandwich him between myself and Hank who acts as catcher after his bro walks through the metal detector (yes, we play the special needs card so we can bypass the body scanner.)  On the other end while putting on our shoes Al points out a man sitting next to us in a green golf shirt who has a dollop of white shaving cream on his ear about the size of a dime.  I try to keep a straight face but it’s hard when I glance at Hank who has raises that smile of his trying his best to suppress a laugh.

Now the counting begins.  It’s 6:30 a.m. so the tally is sluggish.  There are usually two looks we get when people take notice of Nick.  We have named them “Curious Stares” and “Sympathetic Smiles.”  By the time we get ready to board the count is:

 Curious Stares=5

 Sympathetic Smiles=7

We proceed down the jet way scanning for any red buttons that Nick might lunge across us to push.  Speaking of buttons, there is one final count we keep is “Call Button” pushes.  Nick takes the window seat and I am next to them and there will be none on my watch.  The flight is packed to the gills.  I look over at Hank and point out a dude that looks just like Rob Zombie.  I look at him and say, “Two Lane Blacktop” (a Rob Zombie song) and he gives me the head nod.

Besides giving nicknames, we also have “code words” for the people we observe.  I’m not sure I should divulge these but I will offer up a few.  The first one is “TTH” which means “Trying Too Hard.”  You know those people dress over the top or way too young for their age. They scream look at me for attention.

Then there is “HM” which stands for “High Maintenance.”  Sure enough as the flight attendants are reminding everyone that it is a full flight and only put larger pieces in the overhead bins I look up at an young Asian lady who is cramming a tiny draw string “Cats” mini backpack along with another satchel and yet a third; Chicago’s infamous Garretts Popcorn.  She is completely oblivious to the passengers who need to get around her to take their seats. Total HM!

Nick loves the part when we take off.  He gets jazzed up in his seat as his arms open airplane style swaying his body back and forth with a big smile. By the way call button pushes=0.  (Last year while sitting next to Al, who kept dozing off he hit it 5 times and had the cabin crew and people around us laughing.) Besides a handful of guttural burps, wiping a booger on my shirt and incessantly uncrossing my arms that I wanted to fold across my body, he did great.  He was much quieter than “HM” who just had to retrieve her Garrett’s Popcorn out of the overhead bin and eat it loudly opening the brown paper bag and folding it back up over and over again.

Wheels down, Portland, Oregon= Columbia wear…. Snapshot in the airport:  Hippie and granola looking peeps wearing straw hats, hiking boots and brown socks with guitars and pup tents strapped to their back like sherpa’s. It is a broad brush of odd balls who were walking around aimlessly and headed out west to the end point where the rocks meet the Pacific Ocean. Just like the Lewis and Clark’s expedition which ended at Seaside they settled here, a final destination. I found this area and the people fascinating.

View off Highway 101….

Famous landmark, Haystack Rock with Hank….

By the way, for those of you keeping score at home, the final tally upon retrieving luggage and making our way to rental car area:

Curious Stares= 15

Sympathetic Smiles=17

Nick helping with luggage at baggage claim….

These looks barely faze me.  Eighteen years have hardened my shell. People will stare and act accordingly.  Bottom line, I feel solid in the fact that we have always included Nick in our travels here and abroad. It is not easy but it can be done. We made it thru another crazy mix of curious stares, sympathetic smiles and had a great experience with Nick hanging in there. 🙂

That is what’s in my noggin, sometimes the journey over can be one of the most memorable parts of a vacation. Robert Louis Stevenson said it best, “For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.” Until next week remember there is great beauty out in the world, get out and explore.


Lewis and Clark…….

Posted in Autism, Down syndrome, Fun Side of Nick

Blog #15~ Super Nick!

Blog #15~ Super Nick

“Eeeww” he says as he points down to the bathtub.

I scan the tub surface wondering what Nick is trying to communicate.  Then I see a tiny bug writhing around.  Where these bugs come from I don’t know, (maybe from inside the pipes?) I only see the creepy critters in the tub. What’s with that?  Of course I couldn’t resist turning on the faucet and torturing the defenseless thing watching it fight the swift current that led to the drain.

A few months ago I was shoring up the kitchen and again, Nick pointed at the wall next to the sliding glass window and saying “Eeeww!” There was a trail of tiny ants marching down the side of the crown molding barely seen.   I find it interesting how Nick notices everything, especially the smallest of details.  It’s near x-ray vision like Superman. 

He can scan a room and see something out of place then fix it. The last time the cleaning people came through, the kitchen table was turned at a rakish angle. (Is it just me or does anyone else have a cleaning crew that takes creative license? They are always changing the configuration of furniture or picture frames and knick knacks?) Sure enough as soon as he walked in the door Nick dropped his backpack and pushed it back to its rightful place. Just today, a birthday card fell over and he put it back up.

Later, he pointed up to the ceiling in the kitchen saying “Uh-oh!”  I look around to figure out what he is talking about and *lo and behold, one of the light bulbs burned out. Later, he saw a La Croix can in the kitchen garbage and he retrieved it and placed it in the recycle bin.   Silly things I know, but I appreciate his attention to detail.

A few weeks ago in Blog # 5 Ready, Set, Action, I mentioned how well he has been doing with unloading the dishwasher.  He knows exactly what every cabinet holds down to the last cup, bowl, plate, pan and knife and fork.  I wonder if he has been sitting at the kitchen island taking mental notes all these years while Hank was doing the unload.  The same thing goes happens with the groceries.  He loves to help put everything away and with precision might I add.

Now I wouldn’t say he is a savant by any means. He doesn’t know every single movie that won an Oscar nor what year it was or who had the starring role (like one of Hank’s high school acquaintances that has autism.) He never did obsess with lining up objects in a row.  He just seems to have a keen eye that rather fascinates me.

For as long as I can remember, object permanence has been one of Nick’s strengths.  “Object permanence is a developmental milestone that a child reaches when he or she realizes that the object exists even when it can’t be seen. The term was coined by child development expert and psychologist Jean Piaget. He studied the concept of object permanence by conducting relatively simple tests on infants. He would show an infant or young baby a toy and then cover it with a blanket. A child who had a clear concept of object permanence might reach for the toy or try to grab the blanket off the toy. A child who had not yet developed object permanence might appear distressed that the toy had disappeared.”

Let me give you an example.  When Nick was around age three we would go down to my parent’s house to visit.  Every single time, Nick made a beeline to the front bedroom, opened the toy box and pulled out his favorite, the duck musical toy.   He did the same thing at my in-laws house heading straight to the bedroom that has the stash of videos and TV/VCR and his musical toys.

When friends come over, it’s always fun to see how long it will Nick to try and grab their car keys.  You can see his watchful eye taking note of where they set them down or where a purse is put. He waits and then strikes, scooping them up as he runs to the front door pointing them at their car and pushing the red panic button.  That is actually where all this started and preceded to the bigger bang…….fire alarms!  Al and I have to hide our keys up high on the top of a kitchen cabinet. In Nick’s mind those red buttons=noise and chaos.

Interesting how the same guy that likes things in their proper place also enjoys creating mayhem. (For more mayhem check out Blog # 3~ Getting Your Goat.) His eagle eye vision can lock down on a fire alarm fast.  He looks for the opening too. That moment that you might be distracted fumbling for your sunglasses and keys is when he will make the stealthy move.  I can tell you where every single alarm is located in every restaurant and store we frequent around Aurora and Naperville. (By the way the Taco Bell on 75th Street and Rickert is fire alarm free.) The key is to do the quick scan and find them first then sure you position yourself between it and Nick. In addition, it is essential that you are no more than arm’s length from him because he is faster than a speeding bullet!  I can always expect a call during summer school about a fire alarm pull.  The site is not his regular high school but each year he remembers that there is one alarm sandwiched in between two wall mats that is uncovered. I know he has yanked that particular alarm at least three of the twenty five alarm pulls. Yes, we are holding the tally at twenty five but that won’t last.  It’s just a matter of time before he gets one (preferably not with me!)

Who me?  But  I look so innocent……

So that is what is in my noggin this week, my guy with x-ray vision and faster than a speeding bullet. Hope you enjoyed a slice of Nick’s world, the rest of us are just trying to keep up.  Until next week stay cool and thanks for reading my rants, musings and information that hopefully offers some insight about raising a child with special needs.  I enjoy your comments…. Keep ‘em coming!


* “Lo and behold” according to The Phrase Finder, is an exclamation, on drawing others attention to something.  It is used especially to announce things that are considered startling or important.  The phrase is often written with an exclamation mark.  Its origin comes from the word “lo” as used in this phrase is a shortening of “look.”  So, lo and behold! Has the meaning of look!-behold! It has been used since the first Millennium and appears in the epic poem Beowulf.

Posted in Autism, Fun Side of Nick

Blog #14~ “P.B.” Unnerstall

Blog #14~ “P.B.” Unnerstall

Yes, that’s right we call him “P.B.” on occasion.  In fact we have a lot of nicknames for Nick depending on what he is up to. As his brother Hank mentioned in Blog #9 when he is having a raging meltdown he referred to as “M.B.” which is code for Monkey Boy.  My Brother Tom always called him “Bics” which stands for “Bull in a China Shop.”  Nick’s Dad refers to him as “Floct,” where he came up with that I have no idea.  Al is always making up random, goofy names for family members.  For instance our niece Courtney is “Courtal Minortal” her brother, Austin is called “Stinny or “The Stinnalator.” On the other side of the family he calls our niece Anna, “Anna Bo-bana” and her brother Sam is “Sam-u-Wela” or “Welatron.” My sister Laura’s kids are Jake aka named “Jakey Wakey” and Jenna also known as “Wenna”   Now that I am writing all these silly nicknames I am starting to wonder about the man.

So back to “P.B.” His formal name is Nicklas James Unnerstall.  Having such a last name we decided on short, strong names for the boys. My thought was  if we went really long on the names they might run out of spots while bubbling in their name on the SAT test. (Well, guess we don’t have to worry about that with Nick after all.)  So we chose the name, Nick.

It goes back to the movie called “A Sure Thing.”  The two main characters (college students) are hitchhiking across country and no one will stop and pick them up.  So, the female character played by Daphne Zuniga (formally of Melrose Place) stuffs a sweater under her shirt to make it look like she is pregnant.  An elder lady taking pity and stops to pick them up and asks what they plan to name the baby.  She gives a name like Ethan or something (I can’t remember exactly.)  John Cusack’s character pipes up and says….”No, we can’t name him that.  It sounds like a kid that eats paste.  We have to give him a strong name like Nick.  Nick’s your buddy, he’s your pal.  You can throw up in his car.” By the way it is a great movie!

Now we get a lot of questions about the spelling, Nicklas.  Yes it is a real way to spell it, at least in Sweden it is.  After he was born, Al gave the attending nurse that spelling on the birth record.  He actually thought that was how Jack Nicholas spelled his name.  I didn’t really pay attention at the time as I was feeling the after effects of giving birth.  FYI, his middle name, James was taken from his grandpa Jim.

I still haven’t answered the burning question of the name “P.B.” Well this stands for “Pasta Boy.”  For as long as I can remember, the boy can eat his weight in pasta.

Nick and Gma … the early days…..

I don’t think I have ever seen such delight as when Nick is presented with a large bowl of pasta. Around the age of seven we upgraded to the adult portions as the child’s plates just weren’t cutting it. The servers always look at him with skepticism as they put the heaving bowl of spaghetti with marinara sauce in front of Nick.  But we knew would polish it off.



Here he is after a full day of rides at Disneyland…. and a full bowl of pasta….stick a fork in him.. done!

To this day he still jams it out…. and delights in every moment…..Before….

and after…..

While Nick has an extra chromosome in the 21st pair (Down syndrome called Trisomy 21) that has given him many physical attributes that make him look different he has a lot of the same genetic characteristics that make him more like us than different.  He is a string bean and his build is very much like mine.  Speaking of nicknames, mine was “Twiggy” a famous model from the 1960’s.

I was a dinky little kid….

Nothing but arms and legs…with my sis, Laura isn’t she cute. And hey how about those matching Easter dresses crafted by my Mom the expert semstress! (That’s Bo our Border Collie in the background.)

Back then much like Nick does, I could eat whatever I wanted and not gain an ounce.  My personal best was when I was ten years old at Poncho’s Mexican Restaurant located in the heart of beautiful Pasadena, Texas (you know…. where the award winning movie Urban Cowboy was based.)

I was trying my best to keep up with my brother.  Poncho’s offered a family friendly and affordable all you can eat buffet.  You go through the line for the first course feasting hungry eyes as you chose from the vast  steamy trays of spicy entrees. Once you have finished with round one you simply raise the miniature, plastic Mexican flag at the center of the table and the server will take your next order.

 So drum roll please, my personal best was….. tada… thank you….

10 enchiladas

8 Tacos

2 helpings of rice and beans

2 sopapillas (Sopapilla=fried dough that you load up with honey and bite down and it is a gooey, warm and delicious mess!

Driving home from Poncho’s was never a treat with my brother in the car. The three of us would be jammed with our stuffed selves in the backseat of the blue Chevy-Nova station wagon with no AC and in a matter of minutes Tom could summon his colon to rip out the worst farts ever. I could never pump the window handle fast enough to get the stinch out.  I would look over at Tom who would be busting out laughing and rather proud of himself.  Oh, and he would keep a death grip on his window handle tight so the window stayed up.  By the end of the ride back to La Porte it was like that scene out of the movie “Blazing Saddles.” (I hope my friend, Ristow is reading this. He loves the potty humor.)

And so it appears that I have seriously taken the word digress to a whole new level this week.  It would be remiss of me not to mention how much joy Nick gets out of letting a few rip each day (and yes he loves Mexican food nearly as much as pasta.) He totally knows he is funny and will look right at you with that dastardly laugh and vein popping out of his forehead. In fact each morning I am warmly greeted by Nick who comes into the bedroom and lets one go and says “farver” with a laugh.  Oh what a delightful wake up call. I love Nick’s sense of humor, unspoken but sometimes no words are needed.  He also delights in his burps too.  As soon as he takes the first few sips of Sprite at a restaurant he begins the litany of burps sounding like a frog in heat.  I often want to ask “Could you seat us in the burping section.”

“OMG, I just let go of the best burp ever!”

Please forgive my “*Sophomoric humor” clearly I have gone off the rails.  Living with a bunch of boys will do that to you. That is what is in my noggin this week, just a pile of protoplasm. I will blame it on getting a year older. Hey, it’s my birthday today.  I am raising the red, white and green flag for a second helping. Load me up and light a match!

Cheers to celebrating another birthday as well to our country on Wednesday, raising the red, white and blue!

Until next Monday may the sound of fireworks rip and roar in your life and excite you as much as a giant bowl of pasta or refried pinto beans hee hee….!


*Sophomoric humor refers to juvenile, puerile, and base comedy that would normally be expected from an adolescent. It is used to refer to a type of comedy that often includes bathroom humor and gags that are based on and appeal to a silly sense of immaturity.