Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The Woozle Goes Back to Schoozle

Some lessons learned in taking a child on the autism spectrum
back to school.

Is a picture always worth 1,000 words?

Being a writer, I know that sometimes those 1,000 words can reveal what a picture simply cannot. I find this is often the case with children on the spectrum. A smiling face and precocious expression captured in a single moment rarely depict how fragile a state that can be once the environment changes.

In looking at this instantly classic picture of the Woozle, you see a beautiful child who looks eternally poised to take on the first day of Kindergarten. Yet when school actually began, (Benjamin’s at a private, mainstream school with neuro-typical children) the new routine, the new environment, the new teacher and the constant demands in the classroom left him really struggling to survive.

He was pinching other kids’ elbows, a calming mechanism he uses. He wandered the classroom incessantly. He spit on the ground for no reason. He lost all three smiley faces he was given to start the day.

Not exactly picture perfect.

Could all this have been avoided entirely? Probably not.
Could it have transpired differently? Possibly.
Could it have been worse? I think, definitely.

Here’s what we did right:
1) We made sure that we took Benjamin to school the week before to meet his teacher and get familiar with the classroom. That alone kept him from a total meltdown on day one.

2) For days, probably weeks before school started and several times on the morning of school, we set up what the expectations were for good behavior. Although he didn’t many of meet them, we’ve come to learn that you’re usually not working for the immediate result. You’re working on the behavior down the road. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. The stimulation of the room was too much to overcome, but Benjamin realized he didn’t meet the expectations and knows what to work on. Soon he’s going to get there. It took A LOT of hard work and A.B.A. therapy just to get him into that typical classroom, so we know he continue to make great strides.

3) We let his teacher and other parents know what to expect. Too many parents are either ashamed or in denial that their children have special challenges. Every kid has an issue of some kind. It’s okay. You deal with it. Instead of day one ending with other parents and his teacher trying to cut our heads off, we actually got a lot of support. The parents at Benjamin’s school have been awesome.

Here’s what we should have done better:
1) While we let Benjamin’s teacher know about his challenges with communications and focus, we could have done a much better job informing his teacher on specific techniques we use at home to deal with those issues. Consistency is the key to improving behavior and we dropped the ball.

2) We had two weeks of “down time” in between his summer camp and school where we slacked off on the errorless teaching methods involved in A.B.A therapy. It was our way of giving him a “break” but it left him out of practice when school began. Managing inappropriate behavior of children with PDD NOS, Asperger’s or high functioning autism needs to be a never-ending job. We’ll know better for next year.

Tuesday through Friday of his school week proved slightly better. One smiley face out of three for four days straight. Not great but better than zero!

For week two, we made the decision to bring in a shadow. We feel that a week or two with some on-site assistance will help get him permanently steered in the right direction for the year. We’ll see. We’re also bringing in a new behavior specialist to work on a behavior plan for the classroom.

I know of only two things that start with the sound of a bell. School days and prize fights. This year, no doubt is going to be a battle with many ups and downs. But Benjamin genuinely wants to do well. We’re determined to give him the tools he needs to thrive. With the shadow’s help and a week under his belt, Benjamin earned three smiley faces on day one of week two. I’d love to take 1,000 words to tell you how proud I am of him. Maybe I’ll take a picture instead.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Turning Obsessions Into Strengths.

How I turned Benjamin’s fixation on letters and numbers into a love of art.

Certain attributes are essential to successfully raise a child on the spectrum. You need patience, determination and the ability to remain unfazed when your forearm is used as a Kleenex. Yet, I’m continually discovering that creativity just might be the most important of all attributes to possess.For children on the spectrum, even the most straightforward problem can’t be solved in a conventional way.

For example, to introduce a neuro-typical child to the joys of art, all you’d probably need to do is give them some paper and markers. Mission accomplished: The next Picasso is born.

My son Benjamin, on the other hand, is a little guy who would much rather fill a page with a predetermined sequence of numbers or letters. (Who needs another rainbow next to a smiley sun anyway, right?) While my wife and I appreciate the remarkable focus he puts into selecting each “A” or “4”, we feel he'd really benefit from an outlet that would allow him to discover the power of imagination. We feel he could express his emotions though art, as well. (What could be better for a child with communications challenges?) Since Benjamin’s “art” was little more than an endless sequence of numbers and letters, drawing time was only serving to increase a fixation we were hoping to lessen. That's when I knew I had to get creative.

For Benjamin, my goal was to take his fervent love of listing numbers and letters and use that as a way of fostering, maybe not a love of art, but at least a mild interest.

It worked.

Here’s what I did. I got down to eye level (I think that’s critical) and I told Benjamin we were going to do some fun things with numbers and letters. He was excited about that, of course. I started off with him writing just as he always does. (He likes writing in very straight rows and never wants to deviate.) After he had a few rows done, I requested he draw a letter sideways. He didn’t want to do it at first. But once he was rewarded in the proper way, he eventually didn’t mind. Before long, we were writing numbers and letters backwards, sideways and upside down.

Now it was art time!

We started with a new sheet of paper. I started telling Benjamin to put an “M” here, upside down "7s" there and an “O” and an “1” just about everywhere else. Before long, and unbeknownst to him, Benjamin had created his first masterpiece. Then I said, “Look at the paper, you just drew a picture of yourself!” I wish I had a painting of the look on his face. It was a priceless mix of pride, elation and total surprise. He was so excited, he then created the drawing you see above, complete with monogramed shirt.

To me, success in parenting a child with ASD is all about “creative transitioning.” Progress from point A to point B is almost always accomplished through hard-fought inches, not leaps and bounds. And it often takes an original approach that only you can come up with for your child.Benjamin has really taken to art and now asks to draw ALL THE TIME. While his art work still occasionally consists of assembled letters and numbers, he now uses them much more as a means to create versus being the actual object of focus. He even figured out a “V” makes a great cat ear!

So before you resign yourself to believing your child has a limitation of any kind, I encourage you to get creative and figure out ways to leverage your child’s interests to help them grow and expand their capabilities. You’ll be surprised what hard work and a lot of creativity can accomplish.