Autism-Related Articles, Books, Services

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Miss Prickles

Tom is a natural with animals. His special interests within the animal kingdom are sea creatures; reptiles; and a few selected individual species (penguins, hedgehogs, pigeons, skunks...). I've often imagined that he could grow into a job involving work with animals - anything from zoo keeper to animal researcher to naturalist.

Having worked in the museum world for so many years, and seen so many young kids thrive in that rather unusual environment, I've hoped that Tom could find a volunteer opportunity in such a setting. Of course, he's only 11 - so I hadn't pushed much so far. Besides, in Philadelphia most of the opportunities are at larger institutions which can have their pick of volunteers - and a preteen with autism isn't most people's idea of the ideal volunteer.

Here on Cape Cod, though, there are fewer kids - and quite a few scientific and naturalist organizations that run year round. I'd heard good things about a local nature center in Sandwich - and a few weeks ago, when I had a lot of deadlines to hit, I asked Peter to take Tom over to Sandwich to a little live animal show. Tom was the oldest homeschooler there (most were 3-7 years old), which made it perfect for him.

The naturalist introduced the group to Miss Prickles, a real hedgehog - and Tom immediately connected with her. He also met a few other small mammals, all of which he told me about eagerly when he got home.
Of course, Tom has had many, many opportunities to meet and greet live animals. We have two cats, of whom he is extremely fond (and the affection is returned!). He's petted an anaconda, held a Madagascar hissing cockroad, chatted with a macaw... but this was the first time that the staff member actually mentioned that they would be open to young volunteers turning up on a regular basis to help feed and exercise the critters.
This may be a very real opportunity for us: the first time that Tommy has been asked to take responsiblity for a living thing outside himself. And the first time that he'll be made responsible for something outside of his own daily activities.
Fingers crossed that we can work it out - hopefully starting next January.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Surveying for the Homeschool Garden Railway

Long before we actually started homeschooling, Peter promised to work with Tom on a real (small scale) garden railway. We'd seen fabulous garden railways at the Morris Arboretum in Philadelphia and the Brandywine Museum in Chadds Ford - and both guys were very gung ho to create their own. As you can see from the photo of the Morris layout, they have BIG ideas!

Since I'm no railroader, I've left the entire project to Peter, and had no clear idea what he had planned. Last week, the two guys got started - and it's turned out to be a wonderful project so far. Tom, of course, perseverates on trains - but that gives him the motivation he needs to really engage for more than just a short while.

To start with, the two of them went out into our wooded backyard, and drove wooden stakes into the ground at intervals to represent the path that the railway will take.

Next, they drew a picture of the track, and added in existing features such as rocks and plants.

They then measured the distances between the stakes, using a tape measure. Tom did the measuring and called out the numbers; Peter noted them on the map.

Lastly, the added together all the measurements to come up with the perimeter of the track (the length of track to be purchased).

Unfortunately, it turns out that good quality outdoor track costs MUCH more than we anticipated! So the guys will have to practice their skills on indoor track for now - and save up (another homeschool project?!) for the outdoor system...

Friday, November 16, 2007

On the Virtues of Dirty Laundry and Moonbounces

As kids get older, their interactions get more complicated. Instead of "run around like maniacs screaming," they play tag. Instead of "whack the ball and run around like maniacs screaming," they play baseball. For Tom, the running games - with their lack of rules or specific expectations - are just great. So are any activities that involve intense sensory input (crashing games, bouncing games, and so forth). Tom is a sensory craver, and has very little fear of getting hurt!

Rule-heavy sports and complex "read my mind" games (and tag counts as one of these) make him anxious - and so he just wanders off. Even "soccer for aspies" turned out to be too much, too complex, and had too few supports built in. I don't think the coaches understood how clear, simple, and basic the instruction needed to be...

A few years ago, we joined the YMCA - and got Tom involved with swimming. He became a competent swimmer fairly quickly, and we became regulars at family swim on winter weekends. The same Y featured a "family activity room," where kids could bounce on a moon bouncer, crawl through a space maze, and play in a ball pit. We noticed that Tom could bounce and crawl with the best of them - and rarely had an issue of any significance. In fact, these rule-free, fun-for-all games were great equalizers.

For his 5th, 6th and 7th birthdays, therefore, we rented a moonbouncer. And it was a great choice. Sara did the same - and it meant that Tom could interact with Sara's peers without comment from parents or concern from us.

But while all these sensory games were great, they provided very little opportunity to learn game-playing or social skills. After all - outside of getting out of the way of other kids - there's no need for turn-taking, negotiation, or even physical skill. Bowling has helped with some of that - but still, we have seen almost no real interaction with team mates (not that they're big on interacting, but still!).

To help a bit with overcoming isolation, we arranged with a neighbor family to send their kids to us early in the morning. We drop their kids at the bus, and their kids and our kids get hours a week to play and interact. Of course, we're busy in the early morning - and not really focused on managing or encouraging interaction. Still, we've seen some positive signs from Tom, who will at least say good morning and NOT disappear to his room.

A few days ago, it was wash day. Both kids love to help strip the beds - because I roll them up in sheets, drop pillows on their heads, and shove them into laundry baskets (can you say sensory craving??). Now that we have a loft, I can also pitch dirty laundry and pillows from a height - even more fun!

The neighbor kids arrived as my kids had figured out how much fun it was to run upstairs, drop blankets and pillows on the other kid, and then do it all over again. The neighbors joined in the fun - and Tom actually played along. He took his turn carrying, dropping, and lying on the floor for pillow crashes. He used his silly voice to pretend to be crunched under the blankets. He joined in the "drop it on ME" choruses. In short, he really, truly, played along.

I can't say that this had led to deep friendships - or even to more than one or two conversational exchanges. But it's a start. And one thing that Dr. Greenspan wrote has stuck in my mind for years: if your child has done something once, that means he can do it. So it turns out - with or without the benefits of dirty laundry - the ability is there. Now it's up to us to help him build from that basic ability... perhaps even to the point where he can connect on a personal level with folks outside of us.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Alter Egos

When Tom was in kindergarten and first grade, his teacher used a "token economy" to encourage positive behavior. This is common in most elementary classes: you earn smilies, stones, stickers, check marks, and so forth to earn individual or group rewards. This particular teacher had a treasure chest of little toys and candies from which a child could choose at the end of a successful day or week. Tommy consistently chose little plastic skeletons, which he carried with him everywhere.

When he graduated first grade, the skeletons started disappearing (into the wash, down the tub drain, and so on). Worried, we scoured the web for replacements, and found them at Oriental Trading. They seemed a bit pricey (about $5) - but we needed them. I ordered four.

Little did I know the price was per gross.

For several years, we kept four gross of little skeletons hidden in the basement, handing out replacements and "cousins" from time to time. Tom named his skeleton pals; his best skeleton buddy became "Sid" (named for the sloth in the movie Ice Age).

Sid became Tom's alter ego. He had a separate voice and personality, and would often talk for Tom. If Tom wouldn't answer a question, you could ask Sid - and he often knew the answer. Over time, Sid became a force for justice, much like Superman. He could rally Darth Vader and his minions to become good guys in the cause of justice. He built himself a castle (Sara painted the picture) with hundreds of rooms and turrets. There, the skeleton armies munched on bones, watched TV, and prepared to do battle with evil.

Sid became fiercer and fiercer, finally becoming almost a good-guy thug who would be called to knock heads together. He was especially active in Tom's version of the story of James and the Giant Peach - in which James' two aunts (who are satisfyingly smooshed by the peach in the Roald Dahl version) are instead attached by skeleton armies!

In the past year or so, Sid's star has started to set in favor of a much gentler, more creative spirit - lizard. Lizard, like Sid, can talk for Tom - but is far more social, and seems much more ingenious about managing difficult situations. Rather than calling forth the forces of darkness, lizard is more inclined to use his special magic (which seems to be mostly focused on managing others' behaviors and moods) to make bad people good, angry people happy, and so forth.

What's especially wonderful about lizard is that he is ready, willing and able to create special places in his own world (apparently he has unlimited cash and resources!) where others can be comfortable and at home. He created a wet, sandy place where a mother sea turtle could lay her eggs safely (so long as she didn't make a mess) - and then treated her little ones to a restaurant meal of seaweed. He build a beautiful, glass, egg-shaped house with a stone porch and metal railings for a whole collection of big cats (lions, tigers and leopards).

I'm hopeful that we can find a way to help Tommy find himself in Lizard. Clearly, he KNOWS that it's possible to do for and think about others and their needs - and to come to the rescue for those in need. He understands the joy of sharing - but only through his imagination.

How to pull Tommy out of Lizard - that's the puzzle.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Men Versus Women

In recent weeks, we've become more and more certain of something we'd guessed at for a long time: Tommy almost always learns better from men than from women.

My theory is that women are much more focused than men on building a relationship. So they work hard to figure out what makes Tommy happy ... and they work equally hard at making sure they don' t upset him. Tommy, no dummy, has figured out how to work that to his advantage. He opens his big brown eyes with the long long lashes and says "does this mean you're ANGRY with me?" To which the wonderful, supportive women in his life say "oh NO, Tommy, I'm not angry with you" - and they immediately back off.

Tom is delighted, since he's not being challenged or pushed. Everyone is happy. But Tommy has learned very little except how to "manage" yet another teacher.

Men, on the other hand, seem more focused on getting across an idea, a skill, or a technique. Rathering than gazing deeply into Tommy's eyes, they simply say "okay, let's go!" And Tom rises to the challenge. So far, he's done far better with male therapists (with the sole exception of our present wonderful - female - therapist!), male swim teachers, male camp counselors, male music teachers. Of course, like most young children, he's never had a male school teacher, so I can't speak to that.

This week, though, we finally decided he'd snowed his lovely (female) piano teacher enough. We're sticking with clarinet and the very straightforward male teacher we've chosen - who has already pushed Tom to do much more than we'd hoped for. We're sticking with the jazz ensemble, where the band leader really doesn't care whether Tom is autistic or not - so long as he keeps up with the group (so far so good). And we're "trying out" a male math tutor this coming week.

Maybe I have the wrong idea about gender differences. After all, in general women really are more pragmatic than men. But in the case of Tom and his autism, it seems that gentle, kind, careful instruction just doesn't cut it - he needs high expectations and - it seems - very little attention paid to his so-called "disabilities."

Wednesday, November 7, 2007


Tommy has been collecting Thomas Tank Engine toys for too many years now; as a result, he has an impressive collection. At first, he simply lined up the tracks in a straight line, lined up his engines along the track, placed his eye at engine level, and peered along the lineup. Over time, he became much more ingenious about his track layouts; now he not only creates complex layouts, but also finds unique ways to show off his engines.

Last year, he got interested in the idea of creating a "model adventure" layout featuring elevated Thomas tracks running around the living room. He tried over and over to get the tracks to hang together with supports under them, but they're just not built to do that. Peter taped a length of track to a 2X4, which Tom could then suspend between two piles of blocks - but the whole endeavor was very unsatisfying.

We tried interesting him other, more "appropriate" building materials - legos, Kn'ex, and so forth - but he couldn't wrap his brain around the idea that he was to use a blueprint to build the cool toy on the box. In fact, he couldn't even work out the process of connecting one K'nex to another (which, frankly, isn't as easy as it might be!). Instead, he squirreled away the little bits and pieces ... and over time it became clear that we were contributing at great expense to a pile o' junk.

But Tom continues to have an interest in engineering and building. We had given him a marble maze, which decided to build a full story high - and lean up against a wall. But that wasn't good enough. He wanted something bigger. His Dad, who is amazingly talented at going with the moment and inspiring perfect teachable moments, decided that now would be a great time to build that giant marble maze. We have dozens of cardboard tubes (long story), and together they designed and build a TWO-story high marble tube that starts at the old plastic maze, continues across the top of a wall (suspended by string on hooks) and then continues over the loft and down to the floor below.

In the first photo (below) you can see the tubes, connected by masking tape and suspended by string, running above the two windows in the loft.

This (below) is the looooong tube that runs from the loft down to the floor below. At the very bottom there's a bucket to catch the marbles. The bucket has a string attached, so the kids can haul the marbles back up. It's a big hit with visiting pals!

I'd love to see this "maze" expanded, but so far Tom seems happy as a clam with a system that's very close to being a simple chute... It's becoming more and more clear to me that the things I love (complex marble mazes, for example) may not be of any interest at all to Tom... Bummer.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Problems with Patterns

Tommy's autism means that when he learns something, he learns exactly that thing that he is taught. For example, when he learns math with manipulatives, he learns to use manipulatives. He doesn't learn the theory behind the manipulatives. He doesn't learn to substitute symbols for manipulatives. And so, without the manipulatives, he has no clue what to do.

This is becoming more and more of an issue as we work on multiplication. Yes, he can now use charts which he made himself (by skip-counting) to do multiplication of single numbers through the tens tables. And he can multiply a double-digit number by a single digit number with no carrying. This is WAY more than he could do at the end of last year.

BUT - he still doesn't seem to really understand why he can do what he can do.

For example - he created his 2 times chart by putting an X on every other number. So when he sees 2X10, he simply counts ten X's, and when he's done - his finger is on the 20. He's solved the problem, and puts down the right number. But he doesn't actually know how to skip-count by twos. I know this because I've made sequencing worksheets for him - and he has a terrible time with them.

I've showed him the pattern: 0, 2, 4, 6, 8, 0. He can get that pattern and repeat it, saying twenty TWO, twenty FOUR, twenty SIX twenty EIGHT. But he still doesn't understand that 30 comes next. Instead, he says "zero."

If I hand him his chart, he reads it accurately - but again, he's just reading it, not understanding it.

I'd love to be able to say "if he can solve the problem, what difference does it make how well he understands the process?" But I'm pretty sure that it matters. These are basic, simple patterns - patterns that should be self-evident. But they're opaque to Tom.

Saturday, November 3, 2007


Tom has always been a wonderful patron of the arts. He learned the Philadelphia Museum of Art by heart, with his favorite rooms being the Asian Art galleries, Contemporary galleries, and - not surprisingly - the museum shop! He has a real interest in cubism, and can identify Krishna, Buddha and Ganesh anywhere!

Unfortunately, school art classes didn't do much for Tom. He enjoyed the little crafts, but they were specifically designed to avoid any creative input... and he has relatively poor drawing skills. He showed an interest in building, and we tried giving him legos, Kn'ex, and other building toys - but he has rarely used them to build.

Instead, he squirrels them away in his pockets along with other bits of junk. Then, he creates "sculptures" by attaching these bits of junk to one another with various bits of string, wire and ribbon.

We wanted to find a way to encourage his interest in art and sculpture and and at the same time channel his "thing collecting" so that we could minimize the piles of pen caps, bottle lids and other paraphernalia with which he's filled his drawers.

We started by buying a cabinet with many little drawers, and labeling each drawer with a different color. He now has a place to store his junk. Then, we worked together to come up with some specific art projects that could incorporate the junk. Our first effort, based on a piece of art at the Heritage Plantation in Sandwich, MA, looks like this:

We're now working on decorating at Atat (Star Wars walker) which Tom and his dad built from cardboard tubes (we have a ton of these!). Tom has some very large projects in mind - and the Great Garden Railway, I hope, will give him a terrific outlet.
Meanwhile, I am hoping to work together with members of the local homeschool community to put together a homeschool (and siblings) art show for the winter months. With luck, Tom's sculptures will get a little interest and recognition. And - who knows? Maybe a local gallery will take him on LOL!

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Social Studies and Geography

We were furious with the public schools for the fact that they did absolutely NOTHING for our kids with autism in the way of teaching about maps, geography, history or culture. They would occasionally hand out a printable sheet on George Washington or Martin Luther King (in keeping with the holidays) - but these were disjointed bits of fluff - and meant nothing to Tommy (or, frankly, to us).

We had asked specifically to have map skills included in Tom's IEP - but were told that it was not appropriate to include it because... it wasn't a measurable skill (we assured them that it is)... it's not a core skill (we insisted that it is)... and, basically, they didn't wanna. We did a little bit with Google Earth and globes - but he was still waaay behind in that area.

At the very beginning of the school year, on our first trip to Staples, I picked up a map of the US and a map of the Earth. I also downloaded a bunch of printable maps from Enchanted Learning, and looked for ways to incorporate maps, geography, history and culture into our curriculum.

Whales and whaling was a great topic for this: we looked at maps of Cape Cod and the islands... found Nantucket, the Stellwagon Banks (where whales congregate all summer), New Bedford, and maps of whale migrations. We charted the migratory path of the gray whale on a map of North America, identifying Canada, Mexico, and all the states along the west coast.

I also found a website for a book called "You Wouldn't Want to Work on the Whaling Ship Essex," which is an interactive version of a kids' book by the same name. We read it together, and learned about whaling, uses of whale oil and baleen, where whales were hunted, what whaling ships were like, and so forth. I got him to think about the ethics of whaling, and he wrote his very first opinion piece on the subject (no, the whalers were not "bad guys," but nowadays we watch whales instead of hunting them!).

I asked Tom to pick a whale to learn more about, and he picked the Orca (killer whale). So we watched Free Willy and wrote a little bit about that... read up on orcas... charted their range (they live virtually everywhere)... found out about their diets and lifestyles... found a bunch of photos... and created an Orca poster. We discovered (no surprise) that he had exactly zero skills in skimming a table of contents, using an index, or taking notes - so we began teaching some of those skills (there's a looong way to go!).

Tom enjoyed creating the poster, but the truth is that he doesn't yet have the executive skills to come up with headers, lay them out, and organize the information. So we found the info together; he typed it up, I did a lot of the layout. Then Tom glued everything down - and voila! His very first presentation poster.

At the end of the unit, we took a trip to the New Bedford Whaling Museum (less than an hour away). One of the great things about Tommy is that he has no idea that loving museums is uncool - and he is actually able and willing to spend hours poring over artifacts and art! He was especially interested in the huge skeleton of the baby blue whale, model whaling ships, and a few painting of whalers harpooning whales. He identified harpoons, and learned about different equipment used on the ships. They even had a 1/2 scale model of a whaling ship (under construction, so we could look but couldn't climb aboard) and an interior model of a whaler where kids could "sleep" in whalers' berths.

After the museum, we had lunch - then took a stroll down to the harbor, climbed aboard a schooner, checked out the scallop dredgers, and looked at the big fishing boats and barges... all in all, a good day.

We have a very long way to go, though, before Tom is able to put the unit into historic context - or really read a map properly. To that end, we do a few worksheets from time to time... I bought a US states puzzle... but I'm guessing the breakthrough will happen when he and his dad begin mapping out their plans for the Great Garden Railway!

Wednesday, October 31, 2007


When Tommy was seven years old, a friend of ours made us a gift of a clarinet. Tommy was intrigued, and seemed interested in learning to play. So... I embarked on a multi-month process of looking for a teacher who would teach clarinet to a seven year old with autism and significant "behaviors."

We were lucky to find a very young woman who really didn't mind taking on a "different" student. In fact, she was already teaching a young teen with Asperger syndrome - and seemed to be taking it in stride. So Tom started learning.

His teacher thought, since he was so young (and we had a piano in the house) that she'd teach him a little piano at the same time. For the first months, Tommy basically shoved toys in to the bell of the clarinet - but he could blow it correctly, played a few notes, and seemed to really enjoy piano.

The down side was that he point blank refused to play ANYthing new in his lessons. So his teacher taught me - and I coaxed Tom - and he'd come to the next lesson with his new music pretty well learned. It was clear that he had a good ear, and over time he really got pretty proficient. What's more, he's never had a moment of stage fright - so has appeared in concerts, recitals and even talent shows over the years.

Last year, he started in 4th grade band - with me or Peter sitting next to him at every rehearsal and performance. He didn't need us for moral support - or even to help him cope with the timpani and cymbals located two inches from his head. He just needed a little extra help in staying focused on the music, finding the right measure, and flipping to the right page quickly.

Since music seems to be Tom's real talent and point of pride, we've put a lot of energy into helping him do well. Not long ago, Peter actually arranged for us to get a private backstage tour of the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia - and Tom got to play on the stage! (I think this may have been the first and last time such a thing was allowed... evidently the union was not thrilled.)

So before we arrived on Cape Cod, we did a lot of research to find him a clarinet teacher, a piano teacher, and an opportunity to play in some kind of ensemble. We found an older man with a tremendous talent and a great teaching style to work with Tom on clarinet. He has a piano teacher who seems to "get" him.

And he's playing with the 5th and 6th grade students at the middle school in a group called "hot jazz." With great courage, Peter simply told Tom to go ahead and sit up on the stage with the rest of the clarinets - and he did! From what we can tell (watching from the seats) he's handling it just fine. Of course, he practices his pieces with his private teacher - who can help him learn any new notes, new techniques, and so forth. And he's doing it! Of course, he has yet to exchange a single word or smile with another band member... but he's there. He's playing. And though he appears shy, he's very much a part of the band.

Last month, we learned from the clarinet teacher that Tom, who has a terrible time reading music (we have to label much of it with letters) and an even worse time reading half, whole and quarter notes, has perfect pitch. Now he's learning most of his music by ear: repeating and playing along with his teacher.

We are fondly hoping that, in a couple of years, he'll be able to play with the town band - which does march tunes and the like in the harborside band shell. And to be honest, I think he'll be able to do it! It's nice to have fond - and reasonably realistic - hopes and dreams for our boy... just like any other mom and dad.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Team-Teaching on the Home Front

When we decided to homeschool, my husband Peter and I planned to split the work more or less evenly. Since we're both self-employed, the idea made sense. And since I'm a "morning person" and he's an "evening person," we figured that he'd teach mornings while I worked and I'd teach afternoons while he worked.

The best made plans of mice and men ...

It sounded good. But within the first two weeks of Sara's school year we said "yes" to having two neighbor children come over at about 7:15 - so they could take the bus with Sara and avoid early care at school. This is actually a great plus: Sara is connecting with a same-age, same-gender neighbor, and Tom is actually becoming comfortable with peers (albeit younger peers).

But. It meant that my early morning work was really very hard to put into place. Accompanied by the fact that it's really a lot of fun (and good exercise) to go to the bottom of the steep hill with the kids and then climb up again. AND the fact that on beautiful days it's really a LOT more fun to walk to the harbor than it is to get to work.

Then, it became clear that video work (my husband's business) does not work around our schedules. Nor, of course, do all of my writing clients!


What we have learned, though, is that it's not as tough to work around one another as I thought. I'm good at "big picture" thinking, so have been putting together overall curricula; creating math worksheets and printing out printables; setting up field trips, and so forth. But Peter is great in the moment - and can help Tommy move forward on some of his ideas like "making a robot" (they made it out of cardboard and junk), engineer complicated marble mazes, and come up with innovative teaching techniques.

My idea - at least for now - is to plan each week as we go along. I do the more formal teaching (for the most part) - and Peter takes over for "science," "art," and "gym." Sometimes we switch - and then it's up to me to have specific ideas and work in place. So far, it's working out well, but it's hard to know what will happen if Peter (or I) suddenly become extremely busy.

I can only assume that we'll get very tired!

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Candlepin Bowling

New England has a unique tradition called Candlepin Bowling. Unlike traditional bowling, it involves the use of a small, light ball and candle-shaped pins. The bowler gets three tries at knocking the pins down, and can use the fallen pins to whack those pins that are still standing.

We first discovered the fun of candlepin bowling on vacation in Maine - and it was one of the first times that Tommy actually PLAYED a game without melting down or walking away. When we started vacationing on Cape Cod, we always made time for the game.

So... this fall, with some trepidation, we signed Tommy up for the junior league at a friendly local bowling alley.
This is one of those situations in which we felt that Tom really OUGHT to be involved in a sport (just like everyone else). In part, I'm sure, this is a matter of peer pressure (pressure from OUR peers, not Tom's). But I'd tried Tom in team sports like soccer and baseball, and even when it was a "special" program, he found it very anxiety-producing. The need to track other players, follow their actions, and then jump in accordingly was, quite simply, too much.
Still, though, Tom has a good eye for bowling, and he's a fairly accomplished swimmer. He can walk forever, too. So with homeschooling giving us so much flexibility, we're building on those choices. So far, bowling is not a bad choice: he likes the game, learned quickly to cope without the "bumpers," and bowls a creditable 50-60 points per game (sometimes two-handed, sometimes one-handed).
I can't say it's a social bonanza: Tommy keeps to himself, the other kids are pretty uninterested in socializing anyway. But for a first league experience it could be much, much worse.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Writing: Meet Lizard

Tommy has a dear friend named Lizard. As you can see, Lizard wears ladies' underwear. Outside of that unusual quirk, Lizard is quite a guy. He's a social butterfly; an entrepreneur; and an adventurer. Lizard's best friend, Frilled Lizard, joins Lizard daily for a glass of watermelon juice at a table at Lizard's restaurant. Other patrons include various bobcats, siamese cats, lions, and characters from almost every movie and book Tom has ever seen or read. Lizard caters to them all.
The restaurant is on the bottom floor of Lizard's building, where he has a penthouse suite. The view is wonderful: he can see his own boat, train, and car.
Today, Lizard and his friends took the houseboat to Nova Scotia, where they met up with the Harbor Master from the Theodore Tugboat series. There, they had a long chat about provisioning the boat; compared the merits of various research subs; and got directions to the nearest butcher's shop (where Lizard could purchase sausages for his cat friends aboard).
I think they're heading out to sea, but I'm not sure.
It occured to me that we could combine keyboarding with fiction writing by turning Tommy loose on the computer to write Lizard stories. So far, he has been very enthusiastic about this - though his handling of the narrative arc (not to mention spelling and grammar) leaves a great deal to be desired.
I have a feeling that, after another couple of weeks, we will be in desperate need of illustrations. So far, for example, Lizard and friends have taken a "pop car" on a "huge mettal thing" to the 7th floor, Room L. I'm not quite sure what that means - but I am absolutely sure that Tommy has an amazing, rich, and wonderful imagination!

Homeschool and Life Skills

Someone, somewhere, noted that homeschooling parents had less to worry about when it came to finding time for household chores - because they could be included as a part of the homeschool experiences. That sounded great to me, especially because (a) Tom needs a LOT of work on life skills ranging from making a sandwich to tying a shoe and (b) I'd just as soon hit the grocery store early in the day and (c) I could easily envision turning ordinary errands into teaching opportunities.

I put "errands" on a couple of Tom's schedule cards, and indeed we've been shopping during school hours with the idea of making that part of his educational program.

When I first thought about this, I envisioned having Tommy write up the grocery list; use a calculator to keep track of purchases; clip coupons and match them with items; plan meals and put together ingredient lists; and much more. So far, though, I haven't gotten that elaborate.

He does search for items among crowded shelves; choose and find his favorite types of cereal and apples; read and cross off items from the grocery list; pack and unpack groceries; and occasionally work toward the goal of making his very own PB&J. But I hadn't reckoned on how tough it might be to actually plan for and make time for turning ordinary chores into teachable moments!

Of course, I COULD teach him to scrub toilets, sort and wash laundry; make beds and more. And I really do intend to do all that! But the thought of how much longer it will take to do the basic chores is really a bit depressing.

The truth is, I went into homeschooling in part to satisfy my own interests and curiosities. And one of the realities I'm facing is that Teaching Tommy is about... Tommy. Who is a very different person from me! His interests, needs, and preferences are not my own - yet homeschooling Tom will now be a huge part of what I do each day.

I guess the challenge will be finding opportunities for both of us to have fun and grow - each in our own way - while keeping the goal (teaching TOMMY) in mind. I guess we could read a LITTLE non-fiction from time to time... LOL!

To be fair, though, he really is learning from the simpler form of the shopping experience. He's much more aware of what's involved in preparing for and doing the shopping. Even better, he's volunteering to bag and carry grocery bags, and he's not half bad at it.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Reading and Writing: A First Step

Tom's always been pretty good at decoding phonics and words - and has been at about grade level in his ability to read aloud. Thus, based on the usual "focus on deficits" approach so common in public schools, Tom has never been asked to do much reading at all. In the county program, teachers used a Harcourt reader exclusively, along with the accompanying workbook.

In fact, the readings in the book were pretty good - as far as they went. But at age 10, Tom had never read anything more challenging than a picture book selection in a Harcourt reader. What's really worse, though, he had never been asked to WRITE anything more challenging than a one-page book report (fill in the blanks template). We occasionally got assignments from the Harcourt workbook, and I realized that whoever wrote the templates had not actually read the stories.

Tom had worked for weeks on a story about Balto, the sled dog who led the team that brought vaccines to Nome Alaska during a snowstorm. He loved the story (it was a good one), but there was no attempt to discuss the story, connect it to a map of Alaska, or write about it. Instead, he had a fill-in-the-blank template that asked "what is the problem in the story?" Hm. What IS the problem? Is it the sick people in Nome? the snow storm? the problems encountered along the way? In fact, the question made no sense!

So... in an attempt to instantly surpass public school, we started Tom reading chapter books right off the bat - something he'd never done.

He really enjoyed his first selection - "The Worst Witch," and had no problem reading through each chapter. He had no problem remembering what had happened in the prior chapter. He had a little trouble with the cultural differences in the book (the writer is British).


In the book, the heroine one-ups another little witch by doing a better job on a spell. The other witch, jealous, casts a spell on the heroine's broom. As a result, the heroine makes a muck-up of a big event, embarrassing herself and drawing anger from her teacher and head-of-school. Distraught, she decides to run away - only to discover a secret plot by evil witches to take over the school. She turns the bad witches into snails and brings them back to her head mistress. She saves the day! Meanwhile, the jealous little witch sees the error of her ways and repents.

Tommy undertood approximately 10% of this story. He didn't grasp the idea of one-upping a classmate. He didn't grasp the jealousy motive. He couldn't figure out why the heroine didn't know who put the spell on her broom. He knew that she was sad because she had mucked up the event, but didn't understand why she wanted to run away. In short, his autism - and social delays - made even a simple chapter book too complex to understand.

He did write a book report - and I used a premade template from the Education World website (never again - but it helped get me started!). He could do the basics: author, illustrator, main characters, setting, "what is this book about" with minimal prompting. He could outline the basic plot. But he really couldn't go much further than that.

Since then, we've turned to simpler characters and motivations in books that are actually a little too "easy" in terms of reading level, but about right in terms of complexity: Magic Treehouse Books and simple chapter books like "The Littles" which are all plot and almost no character development.

My challenge: how to build an intellectual scaffolding so that he can begin to identify and at least make sense of subtler characters than "bad guy" "good guy" - even if he can't fully empathize with their feelings and motivations.

Suggestions are requested!

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Nature Walks: Why Cape Cod Was a Good Choice

We live on top of a steep hill, about 1/2 mile from a beautiful little harbor (and about 1.5 miles from an even more beautiful beach/tidal marsh area). Every day, we walk down the hill with our kids (and two neighbors' kids) so that Sara can catch the school bus. At the crest of the hill, we can see the bay... the boats... and the Massachusetts mainland.

On one of our first homeschooling days, we decided to keep walking after the bus came - and visit the harbor. I thought it would be a chance to reconnect with the water and the the fishermen... maybe throw a line in the water.

But Tom had other ideas.

The first day, he found six geese, a cormorant (looks like a snake in the water with its long, curved neck), a school of silversides, a crab, a bunch of mussels, and a crab in a crab trap.

On the second day, he found shrimp, scallops, and an american eel.

Since then, he's found an array of sea birds, mollusks, fish... and three baby eels. He even saw a scallop scooting along the bottom of the harbor.

One day - it was a full moon - the tide was so high that he couldn't go under the dock to observe his favorite pigeons in their nest. Another day the tide was so low that the traps attached to the dock were sitting on dry land.

I kept looking at the boats and people - but for Tom it was all about everything else... We went for walks so that I could explore the architecture and envy the faboo waterfront homes. Tommy observed the eel grass, the juvenile fish colonies and the baby crabs.

On Monday, a "day off" (for Sara's in-service day at school), we went to the beach with a clear container and a magnifying glass. Sara collected snails and hermit crabs, and we watched them scramble to get out (they didn't make it). We observed their tiny claws and antennae, and saw their eyeballs for the first time.

At first I came back with serious intentions. I made Tom make a sort of graph showing what we'd seen and how many of them, on which day. After two days I was sick of it - and he didn't seem to see the point.

Another day, after a farm visit and longer walk, I had Tom write up a "my trip to the farm" essay. This went a lot better: he wrote a full couple of pages describing the experience - far more than he'd ever written before! It wasn't grammatical, but it was copious and (I think!) heartfelt.

For the last few days, we've collected leaves and seeds and such. For our Fall Unit, Tom and his dad have been organizing and identifying leaves, mounting them on paper (with plain old scotch tape) and labeling them. In a few days we'll punch holes and tie them together in a sort of nature journal (nowhere near as "high end" as a real Charlotte Mason Nature Journal, but close enough for jazz, I'm thinking).

We also did one of those old-fashioned crafts: gather lots of colorful leaves. Arrange them on wax paper. Put another piece of wax paper on top. Iron. Ta da - a beautiful "stained glass" art project!

Monday, October 22, 2007

Math: What School Did Wrong!

One of our biggest public school frustrations had been in the area of math. We were absolutely certain that Tom could and should be moving forward much more quickly - but the teachers either wouldn't or couldn't do so. TouchMath had been a helpful tool for teaching some calculation (especially basic addition and subtraction), becaue it had him count "touchpoints" on each number and thus add and subtract without having to use his fingers.

But he had been doing double digit adding and subracting with and without carrying/borrowing for two solid years!

Finally, at the very end of fourth grade, his teacher started using our Touchmath materials with the whole class to work on "skip counting" (counting by 2s, 3s, etc.) as a prelude to multiplication. TouchMath also using skip counting by 5s and 10s to teach money and time concepts, so he had those sets of numbers pretty well memorized. But why wasn't he doing multiplication? Fractions? Measurement? Decimals? I was determined to push him forward.

I started out using some math sheets I generated and/or printed from sites like and enchanted learning - and they worked well for certain types of problems. I quickly saw that he could do simple word problems (Joe has 6 apples. He gets two more. How many does he have in all?) without any prompting or visual tools (though he never had come home with word problems from school). And basic fractions were no problem at all: he could identify and even create representations of 1/3, 1/2, 2/3, etc.

But he was still having terrible problems with basic addition subtraction - because he'd forget all about carrying/borrowing. He didn't seem to grasp bigger/smaller beyond the number 10. And when I asked him to count by two's, he could do so only up to number 26. Then he pooped out.

Within a few weeks, I figured out the problem.

It seems that, in teaching Tom skip counting, his teachers used a chart and had him memorize 2, 4, 6, 8, etc. But they neglected to TELL him about the pattern he was forming. As a result, he could count by twos to 26 - but had no idea what came next. I used a number chart and a pencil, and we went through saying skip, 2 (put an X on the 2), skip, 4 (put an X on the four). We did the same thing for threes and fours and fives. He has NO trouble using the charts to multiply up to 100!

I ran into the same problem with bigger/smaller. He seemed to be guessing about bigger/smaller when the numbers got bigger than 10 - and I finally realized that no one had given him rules for deciding relative size of symbolic numbers (as opposed to piles of objects). I explained more digits means a higher number. If there are the same number of digits, compare the digits on the left. If they are the same, go on to the next pair. When you find a pair that don't match, compare them. The number with the highest digit is the biggest number.

He got it.

In short: being autistic, he didn't "see" patterns just because they were repeated. He needed to have the patterns explained. But once they were explained, he whizzed forward!

The down side of all this is that I am having to create my own worksheets at odd hours to let him practice all of this. But I'm hoping that, within the next couple of months, I'll be able to return to computer-generated worksheets - and even get online with Tom (so far he's not really very excited about computer games, but I think I can get him going...).


We started our Whales unit with a Scholastic teacher guide on the subject - created, by luck, by an organization in Provincetown called the Coastal Studies Center. We had actually visited there at one point, so had a very good idea of what they did. And even better: the whales we'd seen were the very same whales that they are involved in rescuing and studying.

We sat down those first few days and read the little paragraphs; put together the cut-and-fold books; and studied bar graphs that compared relative sizes of whales. This covered at least a little bit of reading, writing, science and math.

Meanwhile, I continued to research whales online. I wanted to find activities that integrated mapping and geography; history; biology; and writing. In the back of my mind, I had in mind a "capstone" project that would involve creation of a presentation poster on a particular whale of Tom's choice. I also knew that we would do at least one field trip: a visit to the New Bedford whaling museum.

At the same time, we were starting up a regular routine of reading fiction aloud (we're still not sure how good Tom is at reading to himself), practicing both clarinet and piano, and getting outside and into the natural world.

In fact, I have a feeling that our nature walks and reading are inching us into Charlotte Mason territory: she apparently believed strongly in both those things, though perhaps her choice of books wouldn't have included Magic Treehouse?! In any case, both of those elements have already become very integrated into our days.

Also included in each week, I hoped, would be library; speech therapy; "gym" (bowling, swimming, hiking); art projects; and some practice keyboarding. And of course math. And more!

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Unit Studies... Eclectic Studies... Unschooling.... Oh My!

In a bit of a panic, I plunged into homeschool research. I learned that there are "styles" of homeschooling -- and it seemed that we fit neatly into the "eclectic" style (which seems to mean a little of this and a little of that). Whew. It's nice to have a label for your style - makes you feel less lonely!

I had already decided to try "unit studies" (organizing content around an area of interest) because I had seen Tommy show interest in a variety of topics - and then NOT have a chance to delve deeply because the teacher moved on. So... unit studies. But what topics should we start with?

I reviewed the district's 5th grade curriculum carefully, and saw they were focusing a LOT of time on Massachusetts and 18th century US history. OK, fine, I could do that. I found a unit on Mass history at the (Mass homeschool organization) website... But it didn't sound like a ton of fun, so I thought we'd try parts of it out midyear after I had a better idea of how to modify it. we were DEFINITELY going to do a unit on trains (Peter had actually promised Tommy that we would build a garden railway for homeschool - much more on that later!) - but we just weren't ready to plunge into such a complex project. What else was out there?!

At the end of August, we went on a whalewatch trip to Stellwagen Banks off Cape Cod Bay. There were humpbacks galore... minke whales... even an Atlantic Right whale. Tom was enthralled. So was I. What better topic to start off our life on Cape Cod? So... whales it was, for a starter.

OK, whales. I started researching whales. There are dozens of whale sites. Over a dozen whale species. There are probably ten or more whale units online - not to mention the one I just happened to have in my files. There are whale stories, whale interactives, whale songs, whale myths, whale anatomy books, and there's Shamu the killer whale. There are whaling books, whaling museums, scrimshaw, Inuit art...

So what ABOUT whales? Which whales? How much was I trying to integrate into the unit? How long should the unit be? My head was spinning. Meanwhile, I had no clear idea of how to approach math... spelling... library skills... could I integrate it ALL? Peter suggested I start with Right Whales... but there wasn't enough just on them... or was there?!

About this time, Labor Day rolled around. Sara started public school. There was no more time to waste - and so we plunged in.

Day One involved a visit to Staples and creating a schedule (we use velcro and 3X5 cards). On the cards, Tom and I wrote things like "library," "math," "recess" and "science." We included enough math, reading, music and lunch cards for every day. And we set up a schedule for the week. Recess, I figured, could be a nature walk one day... swimming another day... bowling another... or maybe that was gym?

On Day Two we went to the library and borrowed Tom's very first chapter books (Magic Treehouse and an older English book called "The Worst Witch" which confirmed my certainty that JK Rowling ripped it all off from other writers!). I started scouring the web for math worksheets, and found a great resource at

And we started studying whales.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Yet More Homeschool Resources!!!

Having joined a couple of Cape Cod and Massachusetts homeschool lists, I became aware that there is an ENORMOUS homeschool community out there - with an INCREDIBLE wealth of possible activities. In fact, WAY more than I knew what to do with.

In addition, Massachusetts has two full-scale homeschool support organizations, and a unique institution called the Family Resource Center. The Family Resource Center creates and signs up homeschoolers for programs of all sorts, run by and at local museums, aquariums, nature centers...

Then there's the local rec department - with inexpensive programs like soccer, sailing, basketball... and the local candlepin bowling league (Tom loves bowling)... and the local nature centers and beaches and harbors... and the environmental groups... conservatory and art classes... 4-H...

In short, we were not going to have to search far to find possibilities. The questions that remained, though, were - which were the "good" programs, and which could possibly be appropriate for a child with autism.

One thing I was clear on: neither Tommy nor I were ready to take on any multi-session, group-oriented programs just yet (outside of music). We needed to take it one step at a time, try out different types of activities without committing to any just yet... and besides, there were all these wonderful ideas we'd developed over time that we were just dying to try out...

But maybe it would be a good idea to just put something down on paper and get started?

Monday, October 15, 2007

Getting Started with Homeschool: Nearly Fall!

By mid-August, I had written a very sketchy "homeschool plan" for our district, and gotten Tom signed up with a clarinet teacher and speech therapist.

He plays clarinet quite nicely (it was actually his idea, and someone gave us a clarinet) - though at age seven his idea of playing was to stuff toys in the bell. His incredibly sweet and patient teacher had recommended something called a "plateau clarinet," which is an ordinary clarinet with covers over most of the holes (like a flute or sax). This made playing less of a "can you cover the holes" project - and meant he could be more successful earlier on. His teacher also suggested that he start piano at the same time (he had tiny fingers).

The clarinet teacher seemed very solid, and not at all phased by an autistic student (so different from Philadelphia, where we were sent away from several schools with the admonition that no one would want to work with a student who wouldn't make adequate progress...). He recommended a piano teacher - and now we were in good shape.

The last piece of Tom's musical education would be some kind of ensemble opportunity - and it turned out that the school that he would have attended offered an afterschool jazz program. No auditions. It was for "more advanced" fifth and sixth graders, but I figured we'd give it a shot.

Last year, with our support, he played in fourth grade band - and did very well. The up side was that the music was a no brainer. The down side: when the nicest kids tried to greet him, he blew them off altogether - sometimes even saying "go away and leave me alone!"

We try to build on successes ...

Then, there were academics.

I knew about only two "autism appropriate" curricula: Lindamood Bell and Touchmath. Both are terribly expensive, and from what I'd learned about both, I felt I could make it up on my own based on basic info about the method. I read about Charlotte Mason, and again I liked some of what I saw - but couldn't quite figure out the reasoning behind dictation and some of the other curriculum elements... and not being a Christian, Bible wasn't of special interest.

So I had almost nothing in hand, and the fall about to start!

In Search of Help for a Homeschooler-to-Be

One of the most frustrating aspects of being a parent with a child on the autism spectrum is that there is NO ONE out there who can really coach you, one on one. Virtually every practitioner worth their salt (that is, one who is not peddling snake oil!) seems to say "well, you just go out there and do the research. Figure out what you think works best for you and your child."

Uh huh. Sounds so easy, doesn't it? After all, there are only... what... five or six million autism websites... two thousand autism books... and fifty or sixty possible treatment options. No sweat.

But this time, I thought, there MUST be someone out there who I can turn to. Someone who knows special needs education AND has a handle on curricula. Someone who can tell me, based on some evaluation of Tommy, which curricula would be ideal. For example - he learns well by ear as well as by eye, but has a tough time focusing. So the right math curriculum for him would be...??

I looked around in Philadelphia but couldn't find anyone who seemed to put the pieces together. They could test him and tell me his deficits and strengths, but knew nothing about curricula. Or they'd be happy to tutor him for $100 an hour, but had no materials to share (or even sell). Or they knew lots about social skills training but nothing about academics.

Then I came across a book by social skills guru Rick LaVoie. I read the back cover, and it turned out he lived in Cape Cod. I sent him an email, and he sent me to an organization that specifically worked with homeschooling families of kids with LDs (learning disabilities) - right on the Cape! I contacted them, and set up a meeting.

We arrived on the Cape in mid-July, and before the end of the month I had Tommy in their offices. After a couple of hours of conversation and testing, I had my answers. In essence, they were "he's certainly a bright boy, with a lot of strengths. I'm sure you'll do well homeschooling him." Which curricula should I use? They didn't know. But I should do some research, and figure out... blah blah blah.

On the up side, they did recommend a terrific "speech and language" therapist right near our new home. I put "speech and language" in quotes because our therapist, like so many really good therapists, is interested more in communication and thinking skills than simply in the skill of putting words together correctly.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Building Confidence and Connections for Homeschooling

Since we'd been thinking on and off about homeschool for years, we'd gotten an earful of anxiety from well-meaning relatives and friends. How could you give up your personal life? How could you make a living? How could you find the patience? Aren't homeschoolers mostly religious nuts? and, of course, How would you provide social opportunities for your son?!

For years, I'd listened closely to all these concerns, and taken them very seriously. But as I learned more about homeschooling, I realized that many of these well-meaning friends were either working from outdated information or flat out ignorant about homeschooling in the 21st century. Perhaps homeschooling really was a fringe way of life twenty years ago - but today things have changed.

I was still worried about my personal life and making a living. But as we came to terms with the idea that we WERE going to homeschool, we started "practicing" on weekends and afterschool. And it was a whole lot more fun than we'd imagined. We took family nature hikes and brought along binoculars and field guides. We pulled out the maps and spent time explaining just exactly where we were going. We tried a few science experiments in the creek and the back yard.

We even got involved with a local homeschool "resource center" built on the theories of "unschooler" John Holt. It was an educational experience - but not much of a fit for us. Not only are we not unschoolers by nature - but we couldn't imagine "unschooling" Tommy. A child with autism may be bright, creative, and even willing to try something new. But he's highly unlikely to just "unschool" himself into communication skills, social relationships, or much outside his comfort zone!

In November we stuffed a storage locker full of our "unnecessaries," and decluttered the house. In February our house went on the market. By April we were back on Cape Cod, house hunting. Now, I had a point of contact: a local homeschooler who I had discovered through a listserve, who was willing to drop by our one-week rental to say hello.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Planning Our Big Move

By the end of last September, we knew that Tom couldn't stay in public school indefinitely - or he'd never make it through high school. How did we know, you may ask? Well... I made the statement at an IEP meeting that "if he doesn't learn multiplication in fourth grade, I don't see how he's going to make it through high school by the time he's 18!" The response was "why are you worrying about that?"


To be honest, I'm not as worried about the "18" as I am about the "high school." To me, the message was "he's not GOING to make it through high school, so why get your panties in a twist over it?!"

The truth was, given the kind of education he was getting, she was quite right. He'd never make it through high school.

In October, Peter and I left the kids with his parents and took a weekend up in Boston. We went to an video conference. Why video? We had just launched our own new business. The original idea was to produce products for people on the autism spectrum - and we still wanted to do that. But what if Peter could expand the business to do enough video to be truly self-employed? That would mean we could leave Pennsylvania... maybe for Cape Cod!

After the conference, we stopped off in our soon-to-be (we hoped) hometown and looked at some properties. On the way home, we made our decision: we'd put the house on the market ASAP, and we'd outta there before the beginning of the next school year.

And between then and the following fall, we'd be ready to start homeschooling Tom.

The moment I got home, I rushed to the computer and started looking up "homeschool" and "Cape Cod."

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Time?! Who's Got Time to Homeschool?!

Last fall, Tom started fourth grade. He was in a county program: a special autism support classroom based in a school where there happened to be enough space available. Fortunately, the classroom was in a perfectly nice school, not too far away... his teacher was very pleasant... and Tom continued to stagnate academically.

Were we ready to make the leap to homeschooling?

In theory, we should have been the perfect family to take on homeschooling. Both of us have educational experience. Neither of us have office jobs: I freelance, and Peter (up until a year and a half ago) was a professor working just three days a week outside of our home. So... why not homeschool?!

So far as we were concerned, there was just no way... no time... and we already felt overwhelmed. What with Tom's therapies, a second child, parents with their own needs, a house to run, and - oh yeah - a living to be made, we just couldn't see our way clear to taking on homeschool. Especially with all those onerous Pennsylvania rules and regs. I mean really, if you still have to jump through all the same hoops, why bother?!

So we decided to stick it out for another year, and we kept fighting for a better educational program. I actually purchased a math curriculum (Touchmath)and handed it to Tommy's teacher. We brought in hands-on science activities for the class. He still didn't really move forward, but at least the curriculum was appropriate!

Meanwhile, I kept learning more about homeschooling, and thinking harder and harder about how much easier Tom's education would be if I could just take my marbles and go home! But homeschooling in Pennsylvania... what a project!

But wait - maybe there was a way out! Maybe we could move to a homeschool-friendlier state. A state where we both had emotional connections. A state where we could continue to make a living. A state where we could live just minutes from the beach. A state like oh, say, Massachusetts - and a beach in oh, say, Cape Cod...

We started planning.

Pre-Homeschool Jitters

In the Philadelphia area, homeschooling in general is somewhat unusual and very tough: the state has so many requirements that many people are scared off. Including me, to be honest. Homeschoolers have to have their children take the same state tests as everyone else... they have to be evaluated by an outside "educational expert"... they have to follow the state guidelines almost precisely... with so many issues, I thought maybe private school would be a better choice.

So I looked into options.

Philadelphia has about 4 million private schools. Many are designated "special needs." Virtually NONE of those "special needs" schools would accept Tommy - with the exception of "autism only" schools. Since Tom doesn't really "need" a private placement, we would have had to pay for private school - and the autism-only schools START at about $40,000. What a deal. And even then, we felt, our problems wouldn't be solved: he'd still be dealing with all of the ups and downs of a sequestered life.

I thought about starting a school. Together with a few other parents, I did research, visited model schools, and started to put together a non-profit and a program. But our philosophies suddenly diverged.

I believed (still do!) that paying over a hundred dollars an hour for a therapist is unnecessary: it's perfectly possible to hire a therapist to create a program and then hire energetic, talented college students to actually implement the program. In fact - I've often found that energetic young people do MORE for Tommy than do highly paid, highly qualified therapists. The other parents disagreed.

I felt that the costs of our program should be kept low; they felt that highly-paid therapists were the key to success.

Long story short, we never started up that school. And I was back to researching homeschool.

Luckily for me, I met a woman named Marisol who homeschools her daughters in Philadelpha. Her older daughter has an Aspergers diagnosis, and so Marisol has been connected to what turns out to be an active autism homeschool community for many years. Through my local friend, I learned about Tammy Glaser and the Aut-2-B-Home listserve.

Tammy has been sharing her experiences and expertise with the community for many years - and has so much information to impart that it's almost overwhelming. I joined the listserve, and within one week had read over 200 posts on everything from supplements to reading programs to sensory issues and homeschooling!

It was too much! For the time being, I unsubscribed, and went back to my research.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Before We Started

I started researching homeschool waaay back when - long before we got serious about the idea, but long after I started to become frustrated with Tommy's public education. I wrote articles; talked to friends; read books... but because I do a good deal of curriculum development for clients (and my husband Peter is a professional museum and university educator), I didn't spend much time looking at specific curricula.

I figured that, if I ever really DID start homeschooling, I should be able to make it up as I went along, creating Tommy-oriented unit studies, worksheets, activities, and so forth. After all, I've got this great imagination - and if I can do it for Scholastic, surely I can do it for Tommy, right?!

I already had some great ideas: I wanted to make music, one of his strengths, a major focus of his education. I wanted to use his interest in storytelling as a jumping-off place for writing. I wanted to build science and map-reading/geography into everything. I wanted to get into "real," significant activities.

Now, I start to wonder how many of these awesome ideas were for him... and how many were for me...!

Monday, October 8, 2007

Picking Up the Pieces

One of our biggest gripes with the public school system has been their low level of expectation for our son.

If he could read at all... add at all... write a few words... that seemed sufficient to them. They refused point blank to include any academics outside of the three "R's" in his IEP - even those skills which WOULD be tested when it came time to take the state-mandated tests.

By age ten, with NO reading disabilities, he had never read a chapter book. Never completed a proper book report. Never done a library search for a secondary source. Never built a diorama. Never read a map. Never read about local, national or international history (except on a single worksheet).

He had "learned" basic time telling, change counting, and double digit adding and subtracting - but he didn't seem to really get much of what he'd learned. And he had barely touched measurement, graphing, geometry, fractions, multiplication or any kind of logic puzzle.

In theory, this was perfectly reasonable because... Tommy was autistic. He didn't do well in a typical classroom.

For three years, he had been in a county-managed "autism support" class in a typical elementary school.

It was a nice class of kids at about his level of development (most with Asperger syndrome). Some had "hehaviors." All had social/communications issues. It was a nice school, too - in a very nice district. The class had 1 adult for every three children. In theory - the perfect place!

And in his nice class in his nice school, Tom had been learning "social skills;" taking "adaptive gym;" and generally working at about 50% of his competency level. While his typical peers were off to museums and historic sites, his so-called field trips were to the grocery store and McDonald's. Evidently he was to learn "life skills" in his "high functioning autism" class.

Did we fight for better options? We did. We tried to get supported inclusion, but Tom didn't really cooperate - and of course the general ed teacher was not expected to adapt to Tom - so that was that. We tried to get reverse inclusion groups at recess and lunch. But schedules - apparently - made such groups impossible. We worked for more academic content, coming to IEP meetings armed with state guidelines and legal materials. We created our own feedback form, so we could be sure to know what was going on from day to day. We even provided our own 1:1 support so that our son, an accomplished clarinetist, could be included in band (which met before school once a week).

All along the way, we met with marshmallow-like resistance: we rarely heard the word "no." Instead, we'd hear "we'll look into it;" "we'll give it a try;" "Let's see how it goes." Then we'd hear nothing. We'd ask for meetings. They'd get postponed. We'd ask whether Tom had been escorted to his once-a-week clarinet lesson at school, and would learn that the class had been "too busy."

At no point was the resistance - or the problem - concrete enough to warrant legal action. At no point could we show "no progress." In no way could we suggest that Tom was not grouped with his peers.

All we knew was that Tom was not learning at anything like his real potential - and at the rate he was going, he could expect to make it to about 6th grade by the time he left high school.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Teaching Tommy: The Journey Begins

We moved from Philadelphia to Cape Cod this summer. We wanted to move; we wanted to live near the sea; we wanted a different life. But the central reason for the move was this: a better place to homeschool our older child, our son, Tom.

Tom is now 11 years old. When he was three, he was diagnosed with "pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified" (PDD-NOS). Otherwise known as high functioning autism. So from the time he was three (actually younger), Tom has been labelled, slotted, pigeon-holed and "specially educated."

Now, Tom is being homeschooled.

Up until now, school has been a bit of a disaster for Tommy. Booted from daycare, kicked out of preschool, and required to have a 1:1 aide just to be included with "typical" 5 year olds at a private preschool (our third, and NOT our first choice), you'd think he was a walking disaster area.

He's not. In fact, he's a delightful kid - bright, verbal, funny, creative. But from his "public record," you'd never know it.

His first "boot" out the door was for standing in front of a mirror with objects in his two hands- and saying too little. The second was for throwing a sweater at a teacher (at age 3). By the time he entered kindergarten, we had already been through two IEP's - as well as several 1:1 aides and a slew of therapists. By the time he finished third grade, he was already more than a year behind his peers - which everyone seemed to think was perfectly reasonable.

It was then we decided to homeschool.

Now, two years later, we've finally worked out the details and gotten started. It's October, and already we know we made the right choice! But what will work - what won't - and why - will be the subject of this blog.