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Thursday, January 31, 2008

Reaching Tommy: The Benefits of Including Others in the Homeschool Journey

If you had asked me just a few months ago, I would have told you that Tommy hates playing games. He hates board games. He hates sports-type games. He even hates being coached to improve his skills. His dad and I have tried, over and over again, to engage him in ordinary backyard baseball, soccer, frisbee.... no luck. His sister can't get him to play a game of Uno to save her life.

So how come, just yesterday, a couple of instructors at the YMCA were able to get him to spend a solid hour and a half learning to use a tennis racquet, catch a football, throw a frisbee - and practice the crawl, breast stroke, and back stroke? And how come, after all this hard work, Tom turned to me and said of the two young men - "Mike and Eric are awesome?!" This, by the way, was all part of a perfectly ordinary "homeschool gym" class, offered weekly for about $40 for a 6 week session.

I didn't even know he knew the WORD awesome!

It just goes to show what I've said all along: this "mommy instinct" stuff is for the birds. No, I DON'T know exactly what my son needs, how he needs it, how to implement it, and how to "make him better." On the other hand, I'm pretty good at getting directions to the YMCA off google maps... and I did a pretty impressive job of finding a clarinet teacher who could get the best out of him while also having fun!

So... it's not so much instinct as training and perseverance... and, I guess, a willingness to get out of the way sometimes.

A Blogger Award from Canvas Grey!

How neat to get a prize from The Canvas Grey! Thanks so very much - this blogosphere thing is a ton of fun!
I got another similar award earlier this year from Harold Doherty of Facing Autism in New Brunswick - but hadn't started this blog and couldn't make an "official" announcement on Here's what Harold had to say about the Autism site:
Notwithstanding her affinity for the neurodiversity perspective and my aversion to that socio-political movement we were able to exchange views rationally on such topics as curing autism, autism realities etc. I give Ms. Rudy most of the credit for that. She has also taken the generous step of referencing my perspective and this blog site on About actions which I genuinely appreciate. I thank Ms. Rudy for her calm rational discussion of autism issues with someone from outside the neurodiversity perspective. Ms. Rudy's words about a spectrum of autism perspectives are worth remembering.
Thanks to you, too, Harold!
One of the most complex aspects of the "autism world" is its diversity - and I'm very proud to say that I have friends in all its corners.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Homeschooling Two?!

Today we had a snowy day, and Sara (Tom's 8 year old NT sister) was home for the day. So we tried homeschooling both of them together.

Reading was no problem - we just had each read aloud to us from books they're involved with (James and the Giant Peach for Tom; Spiderwick for Sara).

But then I thought I'd do some read-aloud reading comprehension exercises with the two of them, taking turns asking them for answers. It was amazing: Tom really had relatively little problem coming up with a credible "main idea" for a paragraph - while Sara was totally lost. He was also quick at getting meanings of words from their contexts - another thing that, in theory, he should have found tough. Sara quickly teared up, got upset, and then ceased to even try.

Then we went to math. There, Sara shone and Tom had trouble - and it was very hard to get Sara to STOP and let her brother take a turn. I noticed that he slipped very quickly into his "if someone else will do the work, why should I pay attention?" mode - and basically stopped listening or attending at all! I was having them count up straws (pretending they were cookies) and then give the same number of cookies to each of five kids (represented by cups). Sara instantly understood that she was to give each "kid" 4 "cookies." Tom, who I'm sure COULD have understood, just turned his brain off!

I'm obviously NOT ready to homeschool both of my kids! What's interesting to me, though, is that Tom only goes into his "I dunno" mode when Sara is standing by to do the work. Sara, though, frustrates to the point of tears with or without Tommy around.

Not quite sure what makes her NT and Tom ASD... except the fact that Sara "gets" people, while Tom lives inside his head much of the time. Is ASD and "daydreamer" the same thing??

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Perspective-Taking and the Written Word

In the last few days, I've asked Tom to do several "perspective-taking" writing projects. It turns out this is remarkably easy for him - especially given that kids with autism are supposed to have a TERRIBLE time with perspective taking. Hm. Maybe it's easier for him to take the perspective of fictional characters than of real people?

The first project was a little piece describing the experiences of Mike Teavee, a character in Charlie and the Chocolate factory. No prob. Tom immediately plunged himself into Mike's P/V, and wrote in the first person about his adventures. It seemed clear that he could have written a good deal more if he'd narrated rather than physically wrote - but he did squeak out a few paragraphs (we're still working on what a paragraph IS, so he needed some help with that). He also needed some prompting to get out the details (what does Mike like best? etc.).

The second project was a letter to James of James and the Giant Peach, offering James ideas on how to get his aunts to treat him better. With NO prompting, Tom wrote a lovely note explaining that James should get away from those aunts and go to New York City! Again, he had a lot more ideas that could have been included had he been narrating versus writing.

He's a good writer.

Now the question is - do I work on grammar and structure? Detailed story-telling? Perspective-taking in real life? Typing versus handwriting? Do I let him narrate while I type? ALL of the above?!!

Or... do I back off of writing (since he's already pretty good, after all) - and focus extra time on math, social skills, fine and gross motor (his weaknesses)? If only the answers were clear cut!

Sunday, January 20, 2008

When Imagination Meets A Brick Wall

People with autism perseverate. I'd never heard the word before Tommy came along - back in the olden days we called it "spinning your wheels," "talking about the same thing over and over," or just plain "being boring."

At first, Tom's perseveration was not really contentful. He'd recite scripts from TV shows... recite poems... or just talk gibberish.

Now, he's really quite imaginative, and I KNOW I should appreciate it. Usually I do! Today, though, I am bored, bored, BORED with Tom's imaginary world.

We're working on a unit about Massachusetts history, and recently traced the path of the Mayflower from "old" to "new" Plymouth. Tom is trying to find a way to turn Massachusetts history into a story about his favorite old pal, Lizard.

Tom: "Lizard has a Mayflower."
Me: "What do you mean? You mean a real Mayflower boat?"
Tom: "Yes, he has a real Mayflower boat, and he sails it with his friends."
Dad: "Tom, the real Mayflower isn't around anymore. It sailed more than 400 years ago!"
Tom: "What happened to the Mayflower?"
Me: "I think it sank."
Tom: "Lizard's Mayflower didn't sink."
Me: "Tom, can't we talk about something real, just for a minute?"
Tom: "OK, OK - the real Mayflower was 400 years ago and it sank in the sea. NOW can we talk about Lizard?"
Me: "Oh, Tom, can we NOT talk about Lizard for a while?"
Tom: "I WANT to talk about LIZARD!"
Me: "I'm going to clear the dishes!"

Now, honestly, this is a pretty great and impressive conversation. It shows that Tom really did understand that the Mayflower was a real ship... that it carried pilgrims to American... that it sank... and that's HUGE! And I know - a good autism Mom would encourage that conversation, build on his interests, and help him get beyond perseveration to real symbolic language and conversation.

But the truth is - Lizard is starting to bore me.

Lizard's always here. ALWAYS. And love him as I might, he gets... a little dull. Lizard has everything. He is all things to all people. He's a great reptile. He even has his faced carved on a mountain (Tom sculpted Lizard's face out of clay and stuck it onto the model mountain he and Dad are building for the model railway). Lizard has a golden palace... a giant hotel... a white and gold train, a sailing ship, a racecar, a restaurant, a playground... you get the picture.

Lizard is the ultimate good guy (unlike his pal Sid, the Skeleton, whose job is to whack badguys in scary, brutal ways).

Lizard is the Superego, Sid is the Id. And Tom's working on finding his own place.

It's not that I don't appreciate Lizard. But I think I need a break.

Tomorrow I'll work on finding more ways to let Lizard come out and play - and help Tom learn math, care about history, and explore literature. Maybe we'll even invite Sid to come out and whack a few baddies.

For tonite, though, it's ENOUGH! Lizard, take a nap!

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Homeschool with Friends

As of this January, Tom's been going to a local tutor two hours a week for some work on math, lanuage comprehension and writing. There are two other kids there at the same time. Both are boys; both are about Tom's age; and both have developmental difficulties. The tutor is lovely, but not particularly experienced in special needs...and while she's a fine teacher, I'm not sure she's a BETTER teacher than I am.

I've been watching to see whether Tom's taking anything away from tutoring that makes a real difference in his education. So far, I can't say that it's been a tremendous learning experience for him - but it's been nice to have that couple of hours free and clear to work... research Tom's next lessons... and generally get out and about. In the back of my mind, though, I've been thinking "this is nice, but probably not worth the money... I guess I'll finish this session and quit."

Today I realized there was more to it.

Though Tom has been in group situations this year - bowling, jazz, and now homeschool gym - he's never really connected with any of those kids. Instead, he's been a sort of bystander to the social experience. I mean - he bowls, he plays clarinet, he swims - and he's not generally unpleasant to the kids around him. He smiles, nods. But that's about it.

Until now.

Today, as we got into the car, Tom said "I like those boys." Then he asked me a question. "Do you think they like me?" Without thinking much about it, I said "Yes, I think they do. They seem to like you fine."

Then I realized - this was another first. Tom has never, ever wondered whether peers liked him or not. At least, he's never voiced the question. In fact, this is the ONLY activity he's doing that seems to help him connect with anyone else! I'm not sure what it is - whether it's the boys, the tutor, or the setting - or just Tom growing up - but something has clicked.

As of today, he may actually have... friends!

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Homeschool Gym

I like the YMCA. Ever since I started working for a client who does fundraising for YMCA's, I've been impressed. They don't just spout values: they teach them. They don't just talk about inclusion: they do it. When I wanted a camp program for kids with autism, I went to the Y. They created one. It wasn't the ultimate therapeutic program - it was a YMCA daycamp that supported kids with autism.

So, even though it's a half-hour drive, I immediately signed up when I saw homeschool gym offered at a nearby YMCA.

And, by golly, my optimism was validated.

These guys are AWESOME. A Y staffer named Mike actually got Tom (and two "typically developing" boys) to "head" soccer balls, pass to team mates, and even try to steal the ball. Then a staffer named Eric got Tom swimming laps, practicing strokes, and taking his turn on the water slide.

True, Tom is a little different... he flaps a bit here and there... he's not the world's best athlete.

But guess what? He actually had a terrific time.

Leaving me TWO HOURS a week to ... oh, say, work out at the YMCA!

Monday, January 14, 2008


When we moved into our new house on Cape Cod, Peter decided to put up every one of our family photos - in the frames - on a single wall. Then he put up a whole collection of prints and drawings of plants and animals from around the world. Later, he decided he didn't like the look after all - and as a result there are quite a few framed items stacked up against the walls.

Yesterday, we noticed that Tom had picked out a color drawing of a cockatoo (one of his favorite critters) and set it up on his dresser. This was the very first time he had intentionally selected something to decorate his own space - and he is thrilled with his new decor. It felt like a minor breakthrough.

This morning, Tom was - as usual - lounging on the living room couch and flipping through books. Suddenly I noticed that the nail on the wall above his head was no longer empty. Over Tommy's head hung a framed photo of - Tommy! He explained that he had looked through all the pictures and picked that one out because he just thought it was nice.

I'm not quite sure what Tom's new redecorating impulse is all about, but I love it! If nothing else, it means that he is expressing his taste and interests - on his own. What's more, he's making it clear that he has chosen to take some ownership of and responsbility for his own home.

Very cool indeed.

Now: how can we turn his new interest in interior decorating into a homeschool project? I have a few ideas...

Sunday, January 13, 2008

When It Comes to Homeschool and Autism - What's the Goal?

This question has really been plaguing me recently. Many homeschool books (and educational advocates) say you should have a vision for your child. You know - that he should achieve X by Y time... that he should have these skills, live this type of life, etc. That way, even if the vision changes, you can still measure your progress based on SOMETHING.

I resisted this idea for the longest time, becaue the whole idea of "steering" my kids just got under my skin. But for Tommy, it does seem important to know what I'm pushing toward.

One day, I think "this child has what it takes to be a real musician. and it's up to me and his dad to find the opportunities and to push him forward." When I think that way, I focus on getting him to the point where he can really manage situations independently; pass tests; manage people; and, of course, excel in music. I look for ensemble groups, and imagine preparing him for auditions for the Boston Symphony Youth Orchestra.

The next day I think, "if this child can just carry on a conversation for more than two exchanges without reverting to a monologue about his imaginary lizard, it will be a miracle!" Then I focus on social skills training, life skills, and teaching "math you can use."

So which is it? And it's not good enough to see "let's see where life takes him," because we're the folks in charge of deciding what life will actually OFFER!

One big problem with having specific goals (like music school) is that it assumes certain passions on Tom's part that I'm not sure are there. Sure, he enjoys playing clarinet, and he's better than the average 5th grader. But it's not because of a passion for music (at least I don't think it is). Rather, I believe he plays well because he has perfect pitch, and because he enjoys practicing. And he seems to enjoy practicing mostly because it's an anxiety-reducing activity. It reduces anxiety because he KNOWS what it takes to get the music right.

But he doesn't play piano or clarinet on his own. We always have to tell him it's time. He's always a little reluctant to go to lessons, or to the "hot jazz group."

So is it just a hobby? Or is it a career direction? Should we be pushing the life skills - or the academics? Should we be coaching him to fit expectations - or to follow his own path? I know that all these things are important, but a schedule that includes EVERYTHING could give us all anxiety attacks!

Bottom line: when it comes to homeschool and autism, what matters most?

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Homeschool Blues

OK, I've been busy. But that's not really why I've been remiss about posting on this blog. The real reason is... I've been working to put together a better, more focused program for Tom, and running into no end of frustrations.

We'll be starting a homeschool gym program at the YMCA in Wareham next week - and I must admit I'm nervouse... who knows whether he'll integrate into the group, manage the pressure of uncertainty, or submit to swim lessons when he already has a basic grasp of how to get from one end of the pool to the other?

He's started a "tutoring" program two hours a week with two other boys... one is autistic, the other just "different" - and already I'm wondering whether it was really the right choice. He does ok, but the teacher is not particularly animated - and Tom just sorta wonders about the kids but barely interacts.

He's back in "Hot Jazz," playing clarinet - but after last fall's concerts, where he did beautifully but was basically ignored by teachers and kids (and did his own very impressive job of ignoring everyone around him except to play his music), I can't say I'm terrifically excited...

He's continuing in his bowling league and bowling well, but he continues to use two hands (no one else cares, but we do) - and has yet to say a word on his own to another human being.

We've stopped speech therapy for the time being, because the therapist is working with us as a "thinking coach" - but while she's brilliant, it's also very hard indeed for me to really make sense of how to integrate her ideas into our program.

I'm using Math Mammoth as a math program, and while I like its intense drills and I think Tom's doing well with it, I also know that he COULD be doing more advanced calculation with Touch Math - and I'm totally conflicted. I wake up at night worrying about this!

I'm using comprehension review questions from EdHelper for language arts - and he does just great (just finished Charlie and the Chocolate Factory). But since all the questions are who/what/when/where questions, and he's seen the movie 50 times, I'm not sure that's much of an accomplishment.

In short - I'm wondering whether I really have a clue as to whether I'm doing a particularly good job at teaching, choosing curricula, or even managing our schedules.

Meanwhile, Tom and Peter have been working on an indoor train layout.... building a mountain of papier mache and plaster. It's a great art project, but I had somehow imagined something more integrated and richer.

Part of the problem is that we're really struggling to find the time to plan out much of ANYthing: we're each trying to earn a full-time living in our "off" hours, and I simply can't afford to have my clients feel that they're anything but my first priority... Don't want the house to be a disaster area, or make dinner from a box, or sleep on dirty sheets, or ignore Sara's requests to read aloud or play board games... and every night I fall into bed like a lump.

Not sure where all this is leading... I'm assuming that my spirits will rise as the spring comes closer?!