Autism-Related Articles, Books, Services

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Ready for Day One, Year Two Homeschool

We're getting ready.

I've written up our plan for the school district and submitted it according to regulations. So far, no response - but I figure no news is good news.

We've got all our Touchmath books ready to go. Our tutor hasn't given us a time yet - but it's early days, right?

We've got our first novel picked out for reading: "The Trumpet of the Swan" by EB White. I picked it out to go with our unit on birds (and, to be honest, because A - I have my own copy and B- EdHelper has a literature review unit on it that I can just print and use for reading comprehension, vocabulary, and spelling!).

I've got a lot of writing materials set up - though I suspect we'll go slow on writing to start with. I want to get Tom going on keyboarding, and though we have a new software program to teach keyboard, NONE of us has tried it yet!

Our first multidisciplinary unit is on Birds. I'm using the KONOS birds kit as a jumping off place, but I suspect we'll get quite creative. To start with, we'll do a KWL (what we know, what we want to know, what we learned) chart, and we'll use it as a tool for planning. Meanwhile, I'm trying to get either Mass Audubon or a local birding group to offer an "intro to birding" for a group of homeschoolers... so far, nothing. I have an Eyewitness video on birds and am just about to get hold of a few books and other resources. We'll go search for feathers; take photos of birds in the area; probably investigate bird families...

We've also signed up for candlepin bowling... homeschool gym at the Y (though I'm not sure it'll meet...), and we're waiting to hear about clarinet lessons and ensemble options. Of course we'll continue with speech therapy too... and perhaps start implementing some RDI elements into our program. Certainly I want to give Tom more responsibility for managing his time and getting more independent - I'm thinking that just giving him a timer and creating a schedule on paper (in addition to the velcro schedule) will help.

In reading this over, I realize that I'm taking on an awful lot - and there's an awful lot still up in the air. But I'm not too freaked out ... YET! After all, this is pretty much what we were doing last year, and it worked out just fine... And if it's too much, we can always scale back.

Not sure if this is a plus or a minus, but it seems that I'm really excited about learning about all this new stuff. I can't wait to learn how to go birding... how to paint like Monet... or to design my own totem pole. Hmm... Who is this homeschool program supposed to be for, anyway?!!

Power By Ringsurf

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

RDI and Homeschool...?

Is Tom doing well - or not so well? The answer is yes.

In the past year, he's come a huge way in terms of academics, engagement, self-esteem, and willingness to suggest and try new things. He's much more independent in certain ways, too: he's now getting dressed and brushing his teeth on his own - and one day, when he was hungry, I heard him tell Sara "let's get our own breakfasts." Indeed, they did: he got himself cereal with milk and a glass of juice!

Tom has also been successful in typical situations that would once have required 1:1 shadowing. He bowls on a team; plays clarinet in an ensemble; takes typical tennis lessons. He swims like a fish, and can take part in quite a few carefully selected homeschool programs. In the grocery store he automatically helps out with finding items, placing items from the cart onto the counter, bagging, and even carrying bags to the car and from the car to the house!

He's great in most public places. He handles restaurants beautifully, reads and orders from a menu, waits nicely in lines (much better than most kids). He's way beyond most 12-year-olds in his ability to engage with and learn from museums, aquariums, zoos, and gardens. He enjoys classical music, and can discern the different instruments by ear.

On the other hand...

Tom has yet to make a friend. He's absolutely terrified (I THINK that's the problem!) of interaction with peers, and often interacts with adults only when he's completely in control of the interaction or when there's an obvious yes/no response.

His thinking skills are adequate for many tasks, but he's still unable to even use most abstract terms. The other day he called me a liar - and I was upset until I realized that the terms "truth" and "lie" are still somewhat hazy for him. As a result, more complex ideas like "freedom," "justice," etc. are way beyond him.

He can describe something in concrete adjectival terms - it's green, it's fat, and it's soft. But, for example, if I ask "why do you like that book," he'll simply tell me the plot. I repeat the question and he might say "I like the pictures," or "I like the part when the boy does X." But he's really not able to look at the entire book and derive a "big picture" answer to the question (I love adventure stories and this is great adventure story, for example).

He has a terrific imagination, and can come up with a thousand ways to talk about his imaginary friend Lizard and Lizard's world. But generally speaking his stories are one-dimensional and lack coherence: he'll say "Lizard has a friend who's a lion. The lion comes to Lizard's restaurant and Lizard cooks him meat. The lion has some friends, and they like to do XYZ." Great ideas, but really just a setting and a starting place - and without lots of help, he can't actually develop a story about these characters and settings.

He's amenable to doing many different things, and is willing to go along with a wide range of activities. But when he's asked what HE wants to do, or left to his own devices, he falls back on TV and books over and over again. Even when we're right in the middle of doing something that he loves, he wants to know "what are we going to do next?" And while I used to think this was just an expression of a need for structure, I now know that it's code for "can I watch TV soon?"

He's able to complete certain tasks on his own with minimal prompting, but only when they're always the same (get dressed, for example). When there are variables (even variables that he fully understands and has mastered), he finishes one step and then waits or wanders off - assuming that someone will come along and tell him what to do next (or not, which is even better).

The fact that we can now see strengths and weaknesses, and point directly at both, is huge - a great leap from "he's got issues." But the question of how in the world to address those weaknesses has been really gnawing at me. How do you push a child to want to take responsibility for his own actions; help a child to think well; motivate a child to want to interact with peers and others beyond a nod?

A number of people I respect have suggested RDI might be a good direction at this point, and I've started learning more about it and talking with a semi-local consultant. My frustration is that it's like going back to school (with all my copious free time!!) - and it also requires Peter to do the same. On the other hand, the idea of having someone to help us set goals, devise techniques for meeting the goals, integrate the goals into homeschool, and so forth is very appealing indeed.

More on this as we learn more... meanwhile, if you're a homeschooling RDIer - what's your thought? Is it worth the time, money, and effort to work with a consultant? Can we get what we need in a less strenuous way? Is this something we should pursue, or should we just work with local therapists and social skills coaches?
Power By Ringsurf

Friday, August 22, 2008

Searching E-Bay for Homeschool "Stuff"

I turned in my plan for Tom's homeschool program last week... it's similar to last year's, with a few exceptions. Here's the bare outline (much more to come):

Math - Upper Level Touchmath + weekly tutoring
Reading - List of 6th grade novels; reading comprehension with
Writing - Eclectic - Writing Strands, Edhelper materials, etc.
Music - Clarinet (and possibly piano) lessons, some kind of ensemble program
Art - Mostly built into unit studies
PE - Tennis, bowling, hiking, cycling
Units (history/geog/science) - Birds, Impressionism, Ancient Egypt, Ancient Greece, North/South Poles, Water, The American West, Sound/Music

We (Tom and I) were lucky enough to discover a discounted cuisinaire rod set, a set of science materials and a KONOS kit with all kinds of cool stuf inside, and it inspired me to search Ebay for homeschool goodies. I've already ordered a pile of videos - but am surprised at how little seems to be available that's anything like the KONOS box. Somehow, I expected homeschoolers to be out there creating amazing kits full of wonderful art materials, science stuff, explorations... But it all seems to be books, software and videos with an occasional lapbook or something added for good measure.

For all you veteran homeschoolers out there - what's great?? And what's especially great for a kid who needs lots of inspiration when trying to stay on task doing anything with his two hands? I'm collecting Usborne and DK books and videos... using Edhelper and Enchanted Learning online, and of course making good use of all kinds of local programs, events and resources. But with all that, I'm kinda feeling uninspired, and hoping to find some great hands-on kits.

Am I missing something terrific??

Power By Ringsurf

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Pirates... ARGH!

Today we went on a pirate adventure. I'd had my eye on this family excursion for several years - and figured it was now or never!

Tom and Sara point to landmarks shown on the treasure map.

Tom demonstrates that X marks the spot.

Bad guy pirate having a water fight with our brave crew.

Dangerous Dan the pirate hauls up the "buried" treasure, which was marked with a floating X

Tom watches as Sara holds up the key to the treasure.

If anyone reading this blog happens to be in Hyannis, MA during the summer, make a point of checking out the Pirate Adventure ship on Ocean Dock. This probably isn't for every kid on the autism spectrum - but for us, it was an absolutely terrific experience.

The boat is a real boat, outfitted like a pirate vessel. The pirates are three charming Irishmen (according to them, Irishmen make the best pirates!). The experience was timed down to the minute - and not only were the kids, ages 2-12, engaged for the entire hour and a half, but they also learned something about maps, points of the compass, landmarks... and water cannons.

The boat took off exactly on time, but since we had been asked to turn up half an hour early there was time to choose a pirate vest and get a painted-on "tatoo." On board, the "pirates" immediately provided the kids with clear rules and directions that kept them focused and on task ("all hands on deck" means gather in the bow and put your hands on the floor; "look out positions" means stand on low benches along the rail and look out to sea; and so forth).

There was a storyline that involved real, honest-to-goodness experiences - a "bad" pirate on a sailboat who was squirted with cannons but later was taken aboard as his ship had begun to "sink." A real "treasure" that was found with the aid of a legitimate map of the area. Real flags to be raised and lowered.

Tom, at 12, was the oldest child on the boat - and by far the tallest. But that really didn't matter. He was a little anxious with so many kids around (maybe 20 kids), and not quite sure what to make of the squirting water. But overall he was engaged, took part in almost every aspect of the adventure, and talked about it with real understanding afterwards. Sure, he got overexcited here and there - but wow, what a great time.

I think it was the combination of clear structure, kind actors, and the intrinsic interest of the experience that made it work for Tom. Put it on your list if you're on the Cape anytime soon!

Power By Ringsurf

What's So Scary About Saying "Hi?"

At the beginning of the summer Tommy, having tried tennis at the YMCA, decided he wanted to take lessons. We have a terrific local tennis facility, and Scott, the son of the owner (who is also an instructor) said he'd be glad to work with Tom. So far, so good - Tommy is having a good time in his private lessons, and he's really coming along!


Yesterday, he and I were at the tennis facility watching sister Sara in her group lesson. I was chatting with Tom, asking him whether he, too, might soon be ready to learn in a group. He got quite upset at the idea, and explained that he JUST wanted to play with Scott. He didn't want any groups, and he didn't want to play with anyone else.

I asked why.

"Because other kids might want my toys!"

"But, Tommy, you don't play with toys on a tennis court. Just balls and racquets!"

"They might say hi to me!"

"Yes, they might. Is that ok?"


We went back and forth on this, me explaining that ALL you have to do when someone says "hi" is say "hi" back - and you're done! No need for long conversations - especially on a tennis court, where you're far apart from one another anyway. Finally, in frustration, I told Tom that at some point he would HAVE to play with other people besides the pro, because we just couldn't afford to give him private tennis lessons for the next ten years! Either that, or quit tennis.

He made it clear that he did NOT want to quit.

I have some ideas for scaffolding tennis - perhaps I'll ask the pro about a teenager who'd be willing to play with Tom as a paid "buddy;" maybe I'll pay for some semi-private lessons with Sara... but that's not really what's bothering me.

My question is - what's so scary about saying "hi"? Is it the possibility that someone might then take the conversation to the next step and say something like "what's your name?" Is this social anxiety (a psychological issue) or is it just a feeling of uncertainty (something we can address through social stories and practice)?

When we do practice social interactions, by the way, the result is the same: Tom acts as if I'm a new kid he's anxious about, and refuses to interact! Great method acting, but not especially helpful in the long run...

Power By Ringsurf

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Any Advice on Bikes and Autism...?!!

Tom never really learned to ride a tricycle. In past years, we used a "tagalong" attached to an adult bike, and that worked reasonably well. Now that he's 12, I've used a rented tandem... but at $25 for a half day it's a pretty pricey option.

I decided to try to teach him to ride a bike.

He agreed.

We tried on grass. He fell. The grass was wet. He melted down completely.

We tried on a tennis court. He fell. He didn't even scratch a pinky. He melted down completely, burst into tears, stamped his feet, and ran away.

Now, we COULD try training wheels - but with a 5 foot tall 12 year old??

We COULD quit, but we have a 12-mile long bike trail going in just down the road, and it'll be a fabulous route through tidal marshes, woods, cranberry bogs... I am NOT going to miss out on that, and I want Tom to enjoy it too.

Any thoughts much appreciated!

Power By Ringsurf

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Whale Watch - Yikes!

We've been on whale watches here on Cape Cod for the past two summers, and they were WONDERFUL! So when we were gifted a freebie whale watch off Provincetown this summer, we were all psyched up. The weather was "iffy," but after driving over an hour and seeing glimpses of sun peeking out, we climbed aboard the little boat with high spirits.

Now, the folks at the ticket office DID say it was a bit rough out there - and they DID offer dramamine. But they did NOT tell us "if you stand on top of the boat you will be utterly soaked because we are heading into 4-6 foot waves!" Naturally, we hadn't brought towels or new clothes (nor did anyone else) - and it was a helluva ride.

Lucky for us, we all have pretty tough stomachs. But of the four of us only Tom truly, truly HATES fast amusement park rides and roller coasters. And this was like an hour-long roller coaster ride with no way off! The poor kid was panicked and in tears almost all the way out... and we were stuck outside because there was NO WAY we'd be able to make it down the stairs without killing ourselves.

Finally, we got out to the Stellwagon banks, where the whales feed. Lucky for everyone, a lovely humpback decided to perform for us - doing full-body leaps out of the water, rolls, and flipper waves. But in the past we'd stayed out on the banks for 45 minutes or so, observing lots of whales. This time, just the one. Tom did tearfully watch and say "it's cool" - he really is a huge whale fan.

The way back, fortunately, was smoother. And, though we're not ABA parents we DID offer a big reward to both kids for great behavior. By the time we were back on shore, Tom was totally over his fears and all was right with the world. The sun had come out, and we watched the gorgeous dunes and light houses slide past...

An amazing thing, how Tommy can absolutely freak out one minute, and be over it the next... He talked about it a bit later, but in fact - at soon as the waves ceased, his anxieties did too.

Power By Ringsurf

Sunday, August 10, 2008

A Running Race - Ups and Downs

Each year, our new hometown runs a major road race. 10,000 people from around the world compete, and many more watch. The town runs a kids' fun run, and Tom took part (Sara did too).
Prior to the race, I took the kids for a loooong walk, and we wound up at the tidal marsh across from our nearby beach. Sara was hot, and I gave her permission to take a swim in her clothes. Tom literally fell apart: Sara should NOT swim in her clothes, it was NOT all right, and he was going to sit himself down several hundred yards from the swimming and NOT BUDGE as a protest.
As we walked back, with a soaking Sara and a growling Tom, I asked what the problem really was. Was it that a rule had been broken? Tom said it was, and we talked about rules and breaking rules at length. Only later, when I talked with Peter about it, did I get another perspective: Peter's insight was that Tom simply couldn't abide the idea of wet clothes! Typically, Tom will change his pants if even the smallest drop of water hits them... Not sure which was true, but in the long run he sucked it up, ate an ice cream, and walked the mile and a half home with no complaints.
Later, we went to the race. This was a much bigger deal than I'd expected - with hundreds of people, loud music, hot sun, new foods.... naturally it was much harder for me than it was for Tom (who drank Gatorade for the first time and liked it - blech!) We met up (unexpectedly) with friends, which was great... But Tom's age group wound up having to RUN about 2/3 of a mile - much farther than he's ever run. He was up for it, but we weren't so sure.
Peter decided to jog along with Tommy, and together they finished the race - to great cheers from the audience (they came in half a length behind everyone but one other child). Tom was in tears - he had developed a stitch in his side - but at the very end he put on speed to cross the finish line.
Tom was proud; Dad was thrilled; Sara was supportive. Tom and Sara even got special pictures taken to commemorate the event.
I have to admit, though, that I had some strange feelings about this: the whole idea of a crowd cheering the "special" little boy was in such sharp contrast to his very real success at the concert the prior day. It just seemed so strange that the same boy who could play "The Barber of Seville" and "Take Five" on one of the toughest instruments out there - with MUCH older players - needed so much support just to finish a fun run, just didn't compute to me.
Maybe it's being 12 and on the verge of puberty, or maybe it's my own issues, but somehow Tom seems right now to be two different people. On the one hand, he's a bright and accomplished (and handsome!) kid who can do almost anything he chooses.
On the other hand, he's a special needs child who needs significant support to succeed in the most basic activities of life (carrying on conversations, managing simple changes in rules or routines, asking for help when it's needed).
Perhaps he's on the cusp of a big change - and it's up to us to be sure the change is in the right direction... eep.
Power By Ringsurf

Saturday, August 9, 2008

A Musical Triumph - A Band Camp That Worked

Today, Tom (age 12) played his clarinet in a concert that marked the end of a two-week "band camp" program - and when it was over he came up to me with a beaming smile, saw my face, and said "You're thrilled!" I was.

The camp program, which included as many high school aged "staff members" as it did "campers," was mainly geared to middle school and high school kids with a serious interest in music. Out of about 30 kids, only two were younger than Tom - and most were much older. So far as I know, Tom was the only camper with "special needs," and the camp was in no way therapeutic: it was three hours a day of solid, intensive, challenging music instruction.

At the end, these kids were playing far above the usual junior high and high school level of performance. The pieces were truly challenging: "Take Five," "The Barber of Seville," "Phantom of the Opera," and so on. Tom is a solid clarinet player with some experience playing in bands - but he's never performed on this level.

What made this program work for Tom?

The bottom line for success wasn't knowledge of autism, specialized instruction or expensive aides. Instead it was, very simply, good teaching - and a knowledge of what makes kids tick.
George, the band leader in charge of the program, knew of Tom's autism. Joe, the woodwind instructor, learned about Tom's diagnosis on day one. Between the two of them, here are the simple, low-tech, highly effective steps they took to make the experience successful for Tom:

  1. Transposing the actual sheet music so that it reflected a 6th grade level of musical knowledge (clarinetists don't seem to play the upper register until they're older than Tom is)

  2. Spending a little one-on-one time with Tom to be sure he was truly reading and following the music.

  3. Seating Tom front and center in front of the conductor, and from time to time recalling his attention by saying his name.

  4. Occasionally seating a high schooler next to Tom to be sure he was following the more difficult music (apparently he was playing the flute part by ear instead of reading the clarinet part!)

  5. Providing regular high fives and encouragement (something all the students received throughout the two weeks)

  6. Focusing on the music rather than on acquisition of "appropriate social skills."

Both my husband Peter and I found ourselves thinking "If only the school district had put accommodations like this in place, we may never have needed to start home schooling!" But they didn't. And we did.

Parents and teachers may disagree with me, but I have a theory about why Tom has done so well in the last year with community inclusion.

This year, we placed him in typical small-group programs - including music, bowling, tennis, gym, and so forth - with instructors who had no training at all in working with kids with autism. But those instructors - Henry, George, Scott, Mike, Steve - were all men. Men teach differently from women: in general they're more focused on skills and outcomes than on process, more concrete in their directions, and less likely to worry about whether members of a group are sharing thoughts and feelings. For Tom, all these elements seem to be plusses.

Up until this year, Tom had never worked with men - mainly because there are so few males in educational or therapeutic roles, and everything he did involved teachers and therapists.

Every one of the men Tom has worked with this year has an agenda - but none of those agendas has anything to do with social skills, behavioral therapy or even making friends. Their agenda is focused on building skills and having fun. And Tom can do both. In fact, he does a terrific job at bowling, swimming, tennis, music and much more: his challenge is not the activity but social communication.

I'm not suggesting that Tom doesn't need help with social communication. And I'm certainly not suggesting that he will never again work with women (in fact, he will be working with a terrific female math tutor and a spectacular female speech therapist in the fall).

But I've got to say that community programs run by men and focused on real, meaningful outcomes have made a huge difference in our lives. And what really delights me is knowing that all of these activities - music, sports, hiking, birding, and more - can be a part of Tom's life for as long as he lives.

Power By Ringsurf

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Why Great Teachers Are... Great!

Power By Ringsurf
Summer on Cape Cod. You really can't beat it! So far, it's been a great experience for us, and for Tom.
We started out with a week of YMCA daycamp for both Tom and his sister, and for the first time we dropped off and picked up with no special support provided for him. Two things made this easier: first, we were able to place him in the same group as Sara - and though he was the youngest in the group, it was a good match. Sara could help him as needed (not too often, really), and the expectations were slightly lower. Second, the YMCA staff already knew Tom from homeschool gym, and knew just what to expect - and the same staff worked in the camp as worked in the homeschool gym program.

After Y camp, we had a few weeks of mellowness (beaching, trying out a tandem bike - great for him, less great for me - and general Cape Cod exploring).

Tom's 12th birthday went adequately... we invited the boys from down the street; the cake and pizza went fine, but then Tom disappeared quietly into his room and we couldn't get him to join in the festivities for love nor money. Still, he got his "shopping spree" (with birthday money), which is always a great hit!

And THEN - Tom started in on his Sounds of Summer music camp. This is a two-week morning program offered at the local private school and run by the head of education for the Cape Cod Symphony. Most of the kids are older than Tom - he's 12, but some of them are high schoolers. We talked at some length with George, the camp director, and he had seemed to have no qualms about including an autistic clarinetist.

On the first day, it turned out that the instructor who was working with the woodwinds had NOT been informed of Tom's autism - but he was more than willing to talk with us at length about his needs. On the second day, Tom seemed to do much better, especially since George had kindly revised Tom's sheet music to the range that he's used to playing (12 year olds aren't taught the upper register on the clarinet!). On the third day, George was much more worried about the junior counselors and getting the trombones and timpani focused than he was about Tom - who was doing just great!

Today, I figured out just why he's doing so well.
With no fanfare whatever, George placed Tom front and center, in front of the conductor. When he's about to start the band playing, he makes sure Tom is paying attention - and when he isn't, he just says "Tommy!" and Tom is focused. When a part is especially tough, he has one of the junior counselors sit beside Tom, and help him follow the clarinet part (some of these pieces are tough even for the high schoolers!). As a result of all this, Tom is absolutely comfortable with camp, with the musical challenge, AND with the group - and his social anxiety seems to have lifted significantly. He doesn't chat with the older kids, but he's okay with asking for help, asking questions, smiling... Tomorrow is the Big Concert, and we're bringing presents.

Bear in mind that George has never been trained in special needs. He's just a very, very good teacher.

Sort of like the tennis teacher who's working with Tom now, 1:1, at the local tennis center. Scott says he likes working with all kinds of kids, and Tom is no exception The tennis was Tom's idea, so he's engaged and eager to play - and Scott says he's doing great. You can see why: he actually puts his hands on Tom's shoulders to show him where and how to stand and swing; he started off very easily so Tom could be successful. Now, Tommy is actually hitting the ball quite well; I'm hoping he'll be ready for a group experience in the fall.

This is what I'd hoped homeschool would be about: finding the right opportunities for inclusion, so that Tom could succeed in areas that had the potential to be important throughout his life. So far, so good.