Autism-Related Articles, Books, Services

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!