Autism-Related Articles, Books, Services

Friday, September 3, 2010

How Does My Kid's Brain Work??

In trying to set up a collection of homeschool goals, I needed to consider my child's strengths and weaknesses. 

It sounds easy, doesn't it? 

He's good at reading, but not so good at math.  He's good at music, but not so good at handwriting.

But then it gets tricky.  And then it gets trickier.

For example...  He can grasp an author's style to the degree that he can, for example, write a novel story that sounds eerily like the work of Rudyard Kipling. Yet he can't define the main idea of the same story, and then tell you a few details.  What's more, his grammar and punctuation are atrocious.

He can play clarinet at the level of an advanced high school student if he hears and repeats it, yet he can't quite grasp the nuances of reading the notes on the staff.  He loves band camp where he spends five hours a day practicing, yet moans if I ask him to spend ten minutes on the clarinet.

He loves fine art, and can talk at length about the works of Monet, Van Gogh and Picasso.  Yet he can tell you nothing about the period during which the artists lived, nor can he accurately explain the difference between France, Holland and Spain.

What's he good at?  Where are his challenges?  As a linear thinker myself, I am finding it incredibly hard to develop a meaningful answer.  He's a good writer and a rotten writer...  a fine musician - or not.  A knowledgeable young man or an ignorant kid. 

He's all of the above.

OK, then.  Time to write some goals!

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Tech Tools for Teaching a Kid with Executive Functioning Problems

Tom doesn't really work well independently.  He'll do what I ask - at least the first portion - but if he gets stuck or finishes a part of the process, he just....  stops.  What that means is that I wind up at his elbow, saying things like "okay, what's next?" or "do you have a question?" 
The TimeTimer visual clock

Often I have to go farther to prompt him with directions such as "why don't you look at the next question on the page?" or "you've written the answer, but now you need to read it out loud to figure out where the commas, periods and capital letters go."  Even when we have a written list of "what to do," it can be hard for him.

The truth is, he's capable of continuing on his own.  And with only the merest nudge, he does a reasonable job of proofing and correcting his writing, finishing the project, etc.  In fact, Tom actually enjoys writing and doesn't dislike reading, math, or practicing his clarinet.  The problem is staying on task, and thinking ahead (AKA executive function).

To help him build some independence, I'm looking at software and hardware that might provide the prompts and direction he needs - so that neither I nor a future teacher will need to sit at his shoulder to prompt him.  So far, I've found some interesting software that actually prompts a writer through the brainstorming, drafting and editing process - but nothing I'm sold on yet.

A few things I'm looking at:
  • This article from Reading Rockets about assistive technology for learning disabilities
  • A database called TechMatrix, which lists and reviews assistive technology for learners
  • A site called ReadWriteThink which includes a whole mess of free, web-based interactives to support a range of projects including 5 para essays, persuasive essays, and more.
  • Inspiration Software (graphical organizing system - ordered a freebie demo to try out)
 I've also bought something called a TimeTimer - a visual clock that, I'm HOPING, will help Tom to think about and organize time - and even stay on task!  Tom's SLP (who's also a social skills coach) has used it with him effectively, so I'm thinking it may be a useful tool at home.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Planning for a New Homeschool Year

It's August, and time to plan for a new homeschooling year for Tom, our now-14-year-old with autism (actually PDD-NOS, or high functioning autism). This will be our fourth year of homeschooling, and chronologically Tom will be entering 8th grade. We're hoping that, after this year, he'll be ready to enter what we understand is a wonderful charter high school - and with that in mind, we plan to focus much more on basic academic and social skills than on content acquisition (even though he'll be immersed in all kinds of content whether he "aquires" it or not!).

Tom as Pharoah!
Being a slightly compulsive planner, I already have most of Tom's program laid out. Like last year, he'll be taking part in two days of small group classes taught by an ex-homeschooling mom who also happens to have a teaching degree and experience in special education. These aren't "special" classes or kids, but the small size of the group combined with the expertise of the teacher make it a good opportunity for Tom. Truth is, I personally wouldn't have chosen the topics for Tom (The American Presidency, for example) since he does poorly with abstractions; in general he does much better with topics that are more limited in scope (like Ancient Egypt or Greek Myths, for example).

Jessica, the homeschool teacher, has offered to work with us on helping Tom reach specific goals. Now "all" I have to do is figure out what the goals are, break them down into objectives, and select objectives that really make sense given the setting, the other kids, and Tom's real capabilities (which are always hard to grab hold of!).

In addition to these Tues/Thurs classes which run from 9-1, here are some of my plans for the year:

  • Continue with our genius of a math tutor who works with Tom on Sundays (we barter for his time, but have to travel over an hour each way!)
  • Continue with our genius of a clarinet teacher, who is a whole lot closer (he's a professor at a conservatory, and an absolute jewel of a person)
  • Continue with the after-school jazz band at the middle school (nervous since the wonderful and experienced band director has retired!)
  • Continue with our genius of a speech/social skills therapist, who is now helping Tom to interact socially with other kids at about his age and level
  • Restart tennis at a local tennis school (for reasons I can't understand, Tom seems to love and be reasonably good at tennis)
We're also working on ideas for building Tom's independence and academic skills.  With that in mind, we're thinking about -

  • buying a small laptop and teaching him to take notes using a keyboard (he's been learning to type on Mavis Beacon software, and he's a decent typist)
  • tapping into Universally Designed software programs intended to prompt learners with LDs and other issues (much more on that soon)
  • purchasing a "visual clock" that actually counts down so you can see how much time is available (Tom is still really unable to understand the concept of hours and minutes fully, though he's fine with days, weeks, months and years)
Whew!  Sound like I'm biting off an awful lot, but since the vast majority of what we're doing is NOT being done by us (mom and dad), the biggest challenges are organization and, of course, cash money to PAY for all this wonderful equipment and programming.  Of course some is free, and some we barter for...  but with all that, getting a child with autism out of the house and into typical settings with appropriate programs and support isn't the all-time cheapest or easiest road to take!

More coming very soon...  meanwhile, any thoughts or questions are welcome!

Sunday, February 28, 2010

It's All About Motivation

Teaching a child with autism takes time. Lots of time.

With Tom, the issue isn't compliance. And it isn't behavior. To some degree I could say that it's about comprehension. But most importantly, it's about motivation.

Tom's happy to go out... or stay in. He's perfectly willing to do a project if we sit next to him and give him direction and support. But almost inevitably, when we step away, he's off in his own head - or back on the couch, flipping through picture books and waiting for his next instructions.

The reality is, there's no good reason for him to actively want to complete a project, read a whole book, or think of and execute something on his own. There are no peers he wants to share things with, and the idea of excelling in something for its own sake hasn't really caught on. Competition doesn't interest him. And as soon as he shows himself capable of doing something on his own (making lunch, taking a shower, and so forth), we immediately expect him to do it every time.

From time to time, we offer bribes for independent work (sometimes called "reinforcers," or "motivators."). But we've found that then the process becomes all about the prize. When we withdraw the prize reward, he's still willing to do the work - but only because we insist, support, and nudge.

I keep hearing how people with HFA and Asperger syndrome are passionately involved in their areas of interest. I see kids on the spectrum who fit this mold. But I'm still working on just how best to help my own child discover his own sense of purpose and direction.

And, meanwhile, I'm working on a skill that's eluded me for a lot of years: patience.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The Frustrations of a Busy Schedule

We've been busy, Peter and I... and it shows in Tom's homeschooling experience.

When we first got started with homeschooling, I had a steady gig... we had health insurance on the COBRA plan... and there's was plenty of time to create unique study units based on Tom's personal interests.

We explored Cape Cod; took field trips from Bourne to Provincetown.

We went to Boston museums on a regular basis, and checked out many of the homeschooling programs and events offered throughout the whole area.

We used the woods, the lakes and the beach as our classroom... we took on complex art projects and even went on a whale watch.

All that wonderful creative activity has gone up in a puff of smoke, though, as we struggle to keep our financial ducks in a row.

The steady gig disappeared in a budgetary implosion. COBRA dried up. "Guaranteed" markets I'd relied on for years no longer exist... and many "sure thing" gigs suddenly decided the money wasn't available to outsource. It takes most of our time, energy and hard work just to keep the work coming in and going out in a timely manner.

That doesn't mean Tom isn't learning: he certainly is! He's now with a group of homeschoolers twice a week, giving him the opportunity to learn social and collaborative skills (and us the chance to get some work done!). At home, he's working on critical academics: reading comprehension, long-form writing, mathematics, computer skills. And of course there's still music.

But it's not the wonderful, fun, free exploration we started with... and I miss it.

The funny thing is, Tom rarely seems to feel he's missing out. Sure, he'd love to get to the art museum - but it's by no means an obsession. In fact, he seems perfectly happy with our much-more-predictable but much duller day-to-day schedule.

Can't help but wonder whether all the creative, open-ended activity we were doing was more for me than for Tom??

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Homeschool and Autism: New Skills for Learning

According to the mythology, kids with autism are absolutely fanatical about legos, K'nex, computers and video games. Not so Tommy. In the past, he'd stuff his legos into his piggy bank until it was so full that nothing could be removed... or build "contraptions" with bits of legos and string, and carry them around in his pockets.

This Christmas, though, he received the K'Nex Roller Coaster - hundreds of tiny pieces, dozens of pages of diagrams, and an amazing payoff: a working electrical roller coaster. Together with Dad, Tom actually built the thing - and it works! It's a huge step forward for him, and may be - in part - a result of working on hands-on collaborative projects with a homeschool resource center.

In addition to building and experimenting, each member of Tom's homeschool group of 9 kids or so learned about and reported on an explorer. Tom picked Hiram Bingham, discoverer of Macchu Pichu (in Peru). In the photo below he is making his presentation to the group!

Our next challenges are biggies. We're taking on executive functioning skills, social interactions, and reading comprehension on a higher level (beyond who, what, where and when - we're now looking at "why," and "what does it all mean?").