Autism-Related Articles, Books, Services

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The Ups and Downs of Owl Pellets

Great pun, eh?!

When we purchased the KONOS "attentiveness" kit, which includes a unit on birds, one big reason was that the kit contains an Owl Pellet Dissection Kit (which, it turns out, are available on Amazon!). Tom has always been fascinated with owls, and of course owl pellets contain all the "left-over" materials not digested by the bird after it gobbles its prey (eg bones, fur, etc.). We thought dissecting a pellet would be a great activity - not only because it's bird-related, but because it really builds those beginning science skills of observation and manipulation of tools.

It turned out the owl pellet was a hit - but the dissecting tools were too much for Tom at this point. That's because his fine motor skills are somewhat delayed (part of the autism, I suppose) - so that holding the pellet with pincers and then pulling it apart was tough. As a result, it was up to Dad to actually "unpack" the pellet and place it, on white paper, under a folding desktop magnifying glass.

Under the glass, Tom was intrigued to find bits and pieces of a real mouse skeleton (though his sister was completely grossed out!). We also found a huge amount of mouse fur, and other miscellaneous jetsam. Evidently, Tom was already versed in owl digestion (who knew? it was probably in a video or TV show he saw) - because he was immediately able to explain what he was looking at, why it was in the pellet, and how owls eat and then excrete their leavings.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Homeschool Conference and the Child with Autism

Today, Tom and I took a trip to Boxboro MA, to a homeschool conference. It was an unusual type of event, run by the Family Resource Center - an organization that creates homeschooling programs with museums and other non-profits. There were all kinds of exhibitors, and all kinds of programs - and we had a great time last year. This year was more so-so, but that was partly because we had so little time (had to rush home for Sara's 4:00 bus).

Interestingly, to me, many of the exhibitors were very focused on selling us on "what boys like," on skill building, and so forth. I found myself, more than usual, aware that my child was NOT like most boys... that he ISn't a skilled engineer-in-training, or "loaded with energy," or any of the usual stereotypes. In fact, he spent a fair amount of time in the exhibit hall engaging with soft animal pelts... blech.

Not to complain, because he really did do a great job, and enjoyed the one program we did attend (weaving). But I did find myself continually looking at "cool" programs (US Constitution for Kids, Exchange City, Invention Camp, Challenger Space Programs) and saying to myself "too abstract... too group-oriented... too focused on fine motor... too this that or the other."

It feels strange, because honestly I've felt - at home - that Tom's doing a great job, developing all kinds of skills, and really progressing. Yet out there in the "real" world, where typical kids are more common than those with autism, it's still a pretty rocky road.

On the up side, I got lots of ideas - not only for homeschooling, but also for marketing my new unit studies materials!


Thursday, September 18, 2008

Homeschooling ParentS

It seems that 90% of the time, homeschooling is a moms-only activity. Oh, Dad might take the kids on an expedition, kick the ball around and call it PE, or work with a child on an evening activity. But by and large, day by day, it's all about mom.

In our case, it may not be 50-50 proposition, but it's closer to 40-60 than most.

It's true that I'm in charge of developing and putting together most of the curriculum materials and overall concepts. But day to day, Peter and I split things up. We can do this because we're both self-employed - which means both of us are flexible, and neither of us gets time off.

The "up" side of this arrangement is that Tom has an extraordinary education. I'm the linear teacher, dedicated to building specific skills; creating logical sequences of content; ensuring that we cover all our bases; setting up tutors and field trips. Peter is the inventive, serendipitous teacher - dipping into unexpected areas of interest because they just happen to come up. He's the one who got Tom excited about building a giant marble maze; he's the one who gets hands-on with animal skeleton and such.

The "down" side of this arrangement is that neither Peter nor I get a real break - EVER. If we're not working, we're teaching. If we're not teaching, we're maintaining the house, cooking meals, shopping, going to Sara's "back to school" night, or preparing lessons for tomorrow. Of course, not all of this is a grind: homeschooling often entails tramping the woods, combing the beaches, or going swimming! Still, though, there's no option for down time until about 10 at night.

Meanwhile, there's the anxiety related to being self-employed. On the one hand- no one employer can leave us high and dry. On the other hand - any ONE of our employers can demand attention at any moment. And, of course, you never know when a contract may dry up (one biggie suddenly got put on hold, putting our schedules into a brief freaked out tizzy!).

Tom, meanwhile, sits at the eye of our hurricane. For a kid with autism, he does surprisingly well with constantly-changing teachers and schedules. But I sometimes wonder how much time he spends wondering and worrying about what's going to happen tomorrow!

Birds of a Feather: Homeschool Birds Unit

Tom has an obsession with finding and collecting junk. Whether it's a pen cap or a straw wrapper, he feels the need to pocket it. First, it was just a need to collect "stuff." Then, through floortime, he developed the ability to give every tiny piece of trash a purpose and meaning. The scrap of busted balloon turned into a rainhat for a toy lizard. The bent paper clip became part of a contraption. This was fine for a while... until we opened a couple of drawers and discovered a magpie's nest of TRASH!

Last year, we developed the idea of focused trash collecting. We told Tom he could pick up red, white and blue trash, to be used in the creation of a "found art" representation of an American Flag. We painted a piece of plywood black, drew an outline of a flag in chalk, and started gluing. We entered the flag in the Barnstable County Fair 4-H art exhibition - and it won a prize!

This year, we started out by collecting feathers. Thanks to Tom's eagle eye, we found quite a variety, including the soft downy kind that help birds stay warm and the big, waterproof kind that cover wings.

Then, following some ideas suggested in the KONOS bird unit, we explored our feather collection. Peter (my husband) and Tommy sorted them, and compared them to photos. Peter had Tom use a magnifying glass to look closely at the quills and barbs, and a spray bottle to wet the feathers and watch the water roll off. Tom also drew the feathers and labelled the various parts.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Homeschool Gym at the YMCA

We started homeschool gym again this fall, and it's even better than before - both for Tom, and for me. Instead of creating two separate groups of homeschoolers (older/younger), the Y went with one larger group. As a result, we have about 10 kids enrolled, ranging in age from abou 7 to 13. Being homeschoolers, they're less intense... less competitive... and more interesting than your average kiddos. Same goes for the moms!

Homeschool gym is a sort of substitute for ordinary school gym, only much more interesting. Kids spend about an hour in gym-type activities - but in this case they include things like... ultimate frisbee, rock climbing - things you might actually WANT to do. No "president's fitness test" here. After the first hour, you get changed and get a 1/2 hour swim lesson follow by free swim (including time on the water slide!).

One of the nicest things that happened this time around is that a woman I know locally brought her autistic 11 year old to join the group. This is a boy who, I thought, might have a tough time. Certainly his mom was concerned. But lo and behold, he had a terrific time! Not only did he join in as he could, but no one said a word (beyond encouragement) when he chose NOT to join in.

This mom thought perhaps the fact that the instructors were men might have made a difference. I suspect she's right. Tom, who has NEVER cared for group sports, jumped right into soccer (of all things!). He ran, kicked, and even threw the ball back in when it went out of bounds. His pratfalls were also a hit: everyone giggled when he "hit the wall" and pretended to slide down to the floor!

Friday, September 12, 2008

The Trumpet of the Swan - Right in Our Backyard

Our first unit study this year focuses on birds. It's a great subject for Tom, because he's always been fascinated by owls, penguins, puffins... and he really enjoys watching birds, even in his own backyard. I've also been amazed at how well he can identify bird calls. I looked for a unit study on birds and found quite a few - but none seemed to include all the elements we wanted. One of the best, though, is the Konos bird unit - which includes some great activity ideas along with one hands-on item: an owl pellet for dissection!

To start out with, though, we decided to read The Trumpet of the Swan by E.B. White. It's a wonderful classic, and is terrific for vocabulary, narrative and character. What's more (and I had forgotten this), the protagonist, Sam Beaver, is surprisingly similar to Tom in many ways.

Having read the first few chapters of the book, in which Sam is sitting quietly on a rock with his field glasses, watching the swans swim around a pond, we went for a nature hike. The idea was just to enjoy the lovely weather and collect a few feathers.

Well, here is Tom - sitting on a rock, using his binoculars, and watching a swan on the lake! Turned out there were actually THREE swans on this little lake... amazing!

Monday, September 8, 2008

Introducing My "A-Store" - Homeschool Units and Resources for All Kinds of Learners

If you're a homeschooling parent, chances are your child, like mine, benefits from an education that's "outside the box." Nevertheless, it's always handy to have homeschool units and resources that are pretested, set up, and ready to go.

Last year, I set out to find homeschooling resources and units that I could put to use right away. I was looking for multidisciplinary, multisensory kits, containing books, DVDs, games, and hands-on materials for the arts and sciences. I'm not a Christian homeschooler, so I was looking for secular content. I found science kits. I found art kits. I found downloads and printables. But nowhere could I find a secular, multisensory, multidisciplinary themed unit full of great "stuff" to put to immediate use in our homeschool.

So... I started creating my own unit studies. My idea was to create units that engage an "out of the box" learner, who takes in information not only through words but also through eyes, ears, hands, and imagination.

I quickly realized that I was building just the kinds of units that I myself had been looking for. Even better, through my blog I was also describing just how we used those units, and what we added to off-the-shelf materials to enrich our homeschool experience.

A few weeks ago, I started building an "A-Store" where I could make all the unit studies materials we've used available to homeschoolers. Embedded in the store is information about what we did and how we did it - though of course there's much more information (and photos) about our adventures here on the blog.

So far, I've set up the store to offer all-you-need units on...

  • Whales
  • Trains
  • Colonial America
  • The Wampanoag Indians (Thanksgiving)
  • Oceans
  • The Human Body
I've also created a category that combines books with movies made from those books - because I've found that Tommy, a visual learner, is more motivated to read books he's already seen as movies (and I'm guessing he's not alone).

You can get to my A-store by clicking on this link or on the ads at the top of this blog.

Let me know what you think of my A-store! If you like it, please let your friends know it's here - and that it's growing! If you see places where it can be improved, please let me know that too.

Thanks so much!

Friday, September 5, 2008

Week One - Homeschool Opens

On Tuesday, Sara took the bus to school for her first day of third grade. Peter, Tommy and I followed in the car, and saw her safely connected with her teacher and classmates before waving good-bye. Next, we got a cup of something each at the local coffee shop, and then headed to Staples for homeschool supplies.

We picked up a few items - velcro for our new schedule cards, magazine racks, a weekly and monthly dry-erase calendar, pencils, and so forth. More importantly, we bought a big crate in which to put all of last year's materials (including wall art, timelines, and poster presentations). It was time to clear the decks for a new year.

After all the old stuff was off the walls and stowed away, Tom and I made a list of all the categories of activities we had in mind for the year. Then we put a number next to the category to indicate how often we'd do each activity per week (Reading - 5, and so forth). Then we made up the right quantity of cards for each activity. This year, we decided to color-code - so we could find the cards more easily. So reading and writing are pink, math is green, etc. Lastly, we put velcro patches on the back of each card, so that it could be mounted on our schedule.

This chart is just a large piece of foam core, along with colored 3X5 backed with velcro. We put together a schedule every week - and often shift things around as needed.

Once that was complete (and we'd had lunch), we started filling in our monthly and weekly calendars. My hope is that, by using all these scheduling tools, Tom will get a better sense of how time flows, and how to think about and schedule activities and projects. Of course, in week one things were pretty loosey goosey - but starting next week, lots of outside activities will start up, and the calendar will become more complex.

These Dry-Erase calendars make it easy for us to see what's coming up - and for Tom to get a better sense of how time flows, and how to think about planning ahead.

We stuck the calendars up on the sliding doors (too little wall space for a homeschool, really...), and then figured out our schedules for Wednesday, Thursday and Friday (knowing a cousin would arrive on Friday afternoon!).

The space was all ready - and, it being the first day of homeschool, it seemed to me we'd done enough. So we set off for a "nature hike" down to the harbor. I stuck a baggie in my pocket, keeping in mind that we're starting our Birds unit - and lo and behold, we found several feathers to stow away for the future.