Autism, epilepsy and song

Your love is a symphony
All around me, running through me
Your love is a melody
Underneath me, running to me

~Switchfoot, Your Love Is a Song


My friend JoyMama has a darling daughter Joy who is Rhema’s “sister across the way.” Both our girls are window-dancers and are usually up to the same antics. They are the same age, and both have autism and epilepsy issues. Months ago JoyMama sent me a piece about the comorbidity of autism and epilepsy. According to the article, roughly one third of individuals with autism also have seizures.

JoyMama pulled the following quote:

“During development, the brain is trying to set up all these connections,” notes Ann Berg, research professor of biology at Northern Illinois University. “You’ve got these little neurons trying to sing to each other and then this crashing cacophony comes down over them.”

Then JoyMama wrote something that made my eyes smart and gave me goosebumps:

“Blessings on our beautiful girls and their hard-won songs…”


I’ve written about it many times here. Rhema. Her language, her life is a song. Hope calls it “talking with music.” We don’t know or understand the words, but her serenade is ever present. Like a long musical, she intones her heart-thoughts; she sings every emotion. It seems to be a melody for her, for us, for the morning and night, for toilet paper and rain and air and macaroni and blades of grass; she hums to the world.

And when I think about it, it kills me and inspires me that she keeps singing.

To date, Rhema’s epileptic condition has proven untreatable. She must endure several EEGs a year, and for a child with autism and the communication paralysis and anxiety and all the sensory sensitivities that tag along, the EEG hookup can be sheer agony. So it was yesterday, and I’m convinced she fought harder than she ever has.

Can I say? I wish we didn’t have to keep doing this.

For 24 hours a device in her backpack will record every spike and wave, every electrical blast in her brain. Just a few months ago the EEG revealed that the “crashing cacophany” occurs on average 58 times a minute for my girl.

She repeatedly takes my hand and puts it on her head. It’s her way of pleading with me to take those awful leads off her head.

“I’m so sorry, sweet girl. We have to keep it on.”

This is the face of autism and epilepsy.

And this is the face of a brave little soprano opening her mouth,


and singing through the storm her hard-won song.




“Cause it’s been fear that ties me down to everything
But it’s been love, Your love, that cuts the strings…
You make me want to be brave.”
~ Brave, Nichole Nordeman


In the past few months there’s been concern that Rhema might be having seizures at school.

She suddenly squeezes her eyes tightly shut. She covers her face with her arms as if she cannot tolerate the light. Sometimes she’ll drop and huddle on the floor, immovable. Sometimes, after she’s “snapped out of it”,  she becomes upset and overheated and tries to remove her clothes. At school, her teachers call these episodes “breaks.”

With Rhema, it’s just so hard to know sometimes. Brandon and I have always assumed that these episodes were behavioral – just the latest odd thing in a slew of odd things she does.  For months we’ve gone back and forth, talking with teachers and the school nurse, talking with the staff at Children’s Hospital, video-tapping the episodes. We’re still not sure.

So we scheduled another 24 hr. ambulatory EEG. Sadly, her last EEG was… messy; her brain spiking on average 40 times a minute.

Yesterday my father-in-law went to the hospital with us and helped me hold Rhema down while she got the leads on. Rhema has had more EEGs than I can count since she was two years old. By now she knows the drill, but it is absolutely terrifying , even painful, to her.  

As soon as we enter the room, she is humming nervously and covering her ears.

Asking her to lay still while a stranger messes with her hair, measures and writes all over her head is like asking a teapot of boiling water not to scream. And then we wrap her in sheets and seal her up in a papoose (aka straight jacket.) All she can do is jerk her head back and forth, tears pooling in her huge brown eyes. The cold glue that smells like paint thinner, the texture of the gauze, the loud sound of the suction tool near her ears – it’s a sensory onslaught.

But she handles it well. While her head is being wrapped tighly, she says “Uh oh, uh oh.” She babble-complains, and I kiss her red-hot cheeks.  She calms  herself with a song of words I’ve never heard.

This afternoon we’ll go back to the hospital. Rhema has been so good. She has not tried to rip the leads off her head even once. She kept the backback with a special recorder on all night long, and she slept peacefully!

I’m just proud of my brave girl.


I’ve collected lots of photos over the years of her in the hospital for EEGs. I’ve kept time in my heart and mind on all the effort spent making sense of the seizure activity in her brain.


The pictures remind me of our history, the long trail of medications in treating Rhema’s Landau Kleffner syndrome. Depakote, Keppra (aka Kepp’rage’, nightmare drug), Lamictal, Diazepam and combinations thereof and countless EEGs.


We’ve recently had a long period of respite in terms of Rhema’s epilepsy. But it has not been without cost. Just before Brandon deployed we made the difficult decision to put her on a high dose diazepam/valium protocol – the only drug that seemed to calm the continuous spikes in her brain. The medication can be highly addictive with long-term use. In fact, she went on it a couple years ago in the hospital and even though she had a clean EEG for the first time ever, doctors weaned her from the drug immediately and put her on another (non-addicting) anti-seizure med. The seizures came back with a vengeance.

We decided to go back on the diazepam long term, not knowing what “long term” meant but knowing it probably could not mean forever. We just knew this was a chance for Rhema. With her brain quiet, she could really learn and even gain language.

So it’s been over a year and I have not given much thought at all to spikes and absence seizures and EEG’s. Such a relief. In fact, only when I come across an old picture every now and then do I remember that we are on “borrowed time”.  

Last month when I called for a new authorization on Rhema’s anti-seizure med, her neurologist got antsy.

Time’s up. Time to deal. Time to re-evaluate. There’s always something, isn’t there?

We are at the crossroads again… facing what seems to me in my freak-out moments like an almost impossible decision.

Is the med still as effective as it was a year ago? Is she good and addicted now after a year on the drug? Will she go through some frightening withdrawal if we take her off? Will the seizures come back again? Will she lose all that she’s gained? Do we dare take her off?

Zero hour is almost upon us.

24-hour ambulatory EEG on Monday.


“O our God… we have no power to face this… We do not know what to do, but our eyes are upon you.” 2 Chron. 20:12 


On Expectations

“Just wanted to let you know the EEG results are back. Dr. C will be calling to discuss them.”

I check my little equation: Nurse will call = good news, Doctor will call = not so good news.

I wait for the rest of Thursday.

And all of Friday…

And all of Saturday and Sunday…

“Dr. C never called,” I say on Monday morning.

“No? He’s been really busy. I’ll send him a message again to call you.”

I wait for the rest of Monday.

And now, Lord, what wait I for? My hope is in thee… Ps. 39:7

“Dr. C never called,” I say on Tuesday morning.

“No? I’ll have him paged.”

I wait some more.

“Dr. C never called,” I say at the end of Tuesday. “I’m thinking maybe the EEG is clean? Because he hasn’t been in a hurry to call me… I just wanted to know before Thanksgiving…”

“Hold on,” she says. A minute later, she’s back on the line: “Dr. C wants to meet with you tomorrow. Can you come in to Children’s tomorrow at 10?”

“Ummmm, yeah. Yes. Sure.” Thinking, this can’t be good.


By the time we’re ushered into his office the next day, I have already:
~held Rhema for dear life on the elevator in the parking garage (she likes to bolt when the elevator doors open at every floor
~saved her from crazy Boston drivers at a busy intersection
~extracted her from every wheelchair (some occupied, some not)
~lost my parking ticket
~watched her run in circles in the waiting room, sip someone’s soda, jump on chairs, baptize herself in the water fountain, and try to take a drink from the fish tank.

Dr. C (whom we are grateful for) turns to me and casually asks,

“So did anyone ever call you about those EEG results?”

Um….  No, dude.

For a moment, I imagine myself a spurned lover at his feet. I waited by the phone for 5 days and you never called. WHY DIDN’T YOU CALL ME?????

The image is interrupted by Rhema pushing him out of his rotating chair so that she can spin in it. As I pull her out of the chair, she taps on the keyboard on his desk.

I make a joke: “She’s pulling up her results. The suspense is killing us.”

He laughs… kind of.

Then he tells me her EEG showed no seizure activity during sleep. Good news. Wow! The med is working.

Then he goes on explain that the EEG did indeed show sub-clinical seizures during the day and during drowsiness. I knew this might be the case based on her behaviors lately, and her school nurse had called about absence seizures.

Still, as I skim the report, my hands betray me; they’re shaking.

On cue, Rhema flops to the floor and begins to melt down.

We leave with a plan to increase her current med again and a new prescription for another drug to try. Dr. C says he’s sending our “case” over to a new doctor who specializes in sleep disorders and seizures. “Maybe he’ll have some ideas.” This, he says, after working with us for three long years to treat Rhema’s epilepsy.

Why is it that I keep waiting on things and people, doctors and drugs – anyone besides the One who knit her together in my womb, colored her like a mocha frappuccino, spirited her with an iron will, named her and loved before I knew her?

Ultrasound: Rhema at 29 weeks


My hands steady and a peace washes over.

My soul, wait thou only upon God; for my expectation is from him. Ps. 62:5

Sleep Deprived EEG

Update: Rhema is sick with the flu. EEG cancelled!

Rhema will have a sleep deprived EEG Tuesday morning.

That means I have to keep her up all night tonight and then drive her into Boston for her EEG, during which time they expect her to sleep.

A couple years ago when Rhema did her first BEAM study at Children’s Hospital, a technician sat us down and told us everything that would happen. It was 12:30 in the afternoon when he explained that he expected Rhema to sleep during the 4-hour study. Brandon and I stared at him for a moment and then, as politely as we could, laughed in his face.

“Oh, she won’t sleep.”
“Oh, yes she will.”
“Oh, no she won’t.”

He explained that he had been doing this for a billion years and was a master at getting the kids to sleep during the test. He said that once the leads are on, he lays the child down with mom or dad, turns down the lights, turns on music or a video, and the kid always sleeps.

We bet him a pizza our kid would not.

Needless to say, I have a handful of reports from BEAMs and EEGs performed over the past couple years that say, “Unfortunately, we could not achieve sleep.”

In fairness to our BEAM friend, I must admit that one particular day, Rhema was off her game and did actually sleep for a few minutes. She was quite disgusted with herself when she woke up.


But back to this week’s sleep deprived EEG. I called the kind folks over at Children’s and explained that Rhema is quite used to being up all night and then going through a full day of school (including an hour long bus ride each way) and after-school therapy without so much as a yawn.

It would be better to do the standard 24- or 48- hour EEG in the hospital – this is what we usually do – because she will sleep at some point in that period of time.

But the epilepsy floor is currently filled and we’d have to wait several more weeks for a bed to free up.

“I understand. I’m just worried she won’t sleep for the EEG Tuesday morning.” I said.

“We’ll try our best,” the woman on the phone said.

So there it is. All-nighter tonight. EEG in the morn.

As my blogging buddy Tiredmama would say, To sleep or not to sleep, that is the question.

(We actually really need her to sleep during the EEG, so that her doctor can determine whether her anti-seizure med is still working. Ideally, those beautiful brown eyes will close once the 32nd electrode is glued to her scalp.)

Anyone wanna bet me a pizza?

Hospital Time


We’re off to the hospital
for a couple of days
For long-term testing
of Rhema’s brain waves


Confined to one room,
hooked up to machines
Keep Bouncy Girl still?
Ha! What a scene.


We’ve got movies and toys,
books, puzzles and games
All with high hopes
she’ll be entertained


Children’s Hospital Boston
is a sobering place
So many sick children
We pray for God’s grace


Good results for our girl
We also pray for
Still hope for a miracle
of seizures no more.


We’re so thankful to all
Who send well wishes our way
I carry each one of you
in my heart… always.


(So don’t make fun of my poem!)