Conversation Starters, Spectrum Style

Our kiddos on the autism spectrum need practice with social skills.  I tend to let The Boy relax when he gets home because I know he’s worked hard all day, staying quiet when all he wants to do is make silly tuba noises, paying attention when all he wants to do is draw, and doing his best to get his work done all damn day.

But, neither does he get a free pass.  We still have homework to complete and projects to do at home. And summer is not a free pass in this house, either.  Especially if there is no camp.

I have always taken summer as a wonderful opportunity to target areas in my own learning, or develop new ways of doing because we run out of time during the school year.  This is so ingrained in me, that I’ve been planning with The Boy for all of the areas we can practice skills because we just don’t have time, and The Boy does not have the energy or patience after a long day of school.  I was reading a blog post on Momastery.com I found through Pinterest that looked like an activity that had potential not only for social skills and conversation practice, but could also provide an opportunity for me to get inside The Boy’s head a bit. The Holy Grail for autism parents.  But as I read, I realized it wouldn’t quite work for us, because open-ended questions often do not get answers from The Boy.  There are just too many possible answers, and he freezes.  He needs selections to choose from –  multiple choice, if you will. And then I remembered this other game of question and answer, a get-to-know-you game where possible answers are provided…

We’re pretty used to modifying activities and assignments around here, so I’m sharing with you an activity (free printable) I developed, “Planting the Seed – Conversation Starters for Kiddos on the Spectrum“.  Check it out, download it, tailor it to your own kiddo and then come back and let us know what you thought and how it worked.

dandelions_black

A Summer Reading Plan: The Giver

Saturday was National Free Comic Book Day, which I stumbled upon completely by accident.  I went on the website to see if any store in our area was participating, and was really surprised to see the book store at the beach listed.  We decided to head over there to visit a friend’s grand opening of his new skate shop, and then I suggested we check out the book store.  Sure enough, they were making it a big deal, and The Boy immediately found 5 free comics he was interested in, like Spongebob, Teen Titans Go, and a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle comic, as well.  Then we went to look at the real comics, and found a Sonic comic he didn’t have.

While we were there, I thought we’d look for a book to read together this summer.  I had some ideas, and even looked for “Wonder” which Nancy recommended on my facebook page when I wrote about our backup summer plans in lieu of no summer camp.  They didn’t have “Wonder” yet, but put it on their list to order, and instead, I went looking for “The Giver” by Lois Lowry, which is one of my all-time favorite books, and perfect for The Boy’s age group.

As we talked about it, The Boy was more than agreeable to reading a book with me this summer, and almost sounded excited about it, which in turn makes me excited. :D

If there is anyone else that would like to read “The Giver” with us this summer, we’ll be doing some book club type stuff on the Simple. I Just Do. facebook page so we can all participate.  I’ll even put the questions in the comments so we don’t have any spoilers if you aren’t quite at the same pace as we are.  Even if you don’t have an upper el or middle school kid to read it with, I highly recommend the book for adults, as well.  We’ll start about the second week of June.  That gives you about a month to get your copy ;)

What do you think?  Are you in?

Summer Plans Now That There May Be No Camp

The Boy’s summer camp that he has attended for the past couple of summers has lost its home, and I am fairly certain he won’t qualify for ESY this year, magically, even though he has qualified since the age of 5.  This leaves us with a bit of a problem.  An unstructured summer for a kiddo on the spectrum spells disaster.  I would consider enrolling him in a program primarily for neurotypical kids, if I thought for one hot minute that anyone on their staff would have a clue about autism.  But since the paid professionals in the area still seem to be clueless, that is a lot to expect, and a lot of money to spend on an experience which could quite likely do more harm than good.

Time OutGrammy and Poppy have already spoken up, suggesting a beach day with The Boy each week, to get him out of the house.  Excellent.  The Boy takes to water like there’s no tomorrow, and thankfully doesn’t try to swim to Africa like he did when he was younger.  He can stay absorbed for hours just wading in up to his chest and jumping around, and I think that would provide a lot of sensory input and exercise in his routine.

Ever the planner, I am already thinking of post-high school experiences and what those may be like, so why not use this huge chunk of time in the year, which already has built in traditions and transitions, toward a better purpose.  The Boy has an undying love for PowerPoint and it’s Google counterpart, so I’m developing an idea to pay a bit of allowance for “projects” that I plan to give him for those programs.  I’ll give him a set of parameters at the beginning of the week, and allow him to develop something for me over the course of the week, building on the idea that you get paid for doing work, and that the work may include doing what someone else wants you to do.

Another thought I had and just haven’t had time to act upon yet is to reach out to some friends in the veterinary medicine business, and some friends who have multiple household pets and offer The Boy’s services as a walker, or a visitor.  If we can get him to learn some skills in an area in which he has great interest, he may be able to find something meaningful to do with his life and be able to give back to others.

I’d like him to read a novel this summer, even if it means we read every word of it together, but with enough supports and incentives, I think even this is attainable.

And somehow, we have to get him some time to socialize, which is the hardest part in our county, where it seems like it takes two hours to get from one end to the other some days.

Yet again, I find myself doing things that the professionals handled for us up North.  DIY special education programming around here, I reckon…

All It Takes is One Dumb Bus Driver

The BusThis past Friday, The Boy was left behind by his bus.

Our outside light was on, and our front window blinds (all three of them) were open. The driver rolled up to our house early, honked once, waited less than 10 seconds, and then turned around in the cul de sac and left.

Recently, when our regular bus driver began to arrive earlier and earlier, we worked out an arrangement with her. She now waits for him, and does not expect him to exit the house until around 6:30am, which has been his expectation and his routine for the entire school year.

When the bus left on Friday, I ran out to the porch, waving my arms, to no avail. The Boy began to get upset, wondering how he was going to get to school. We were in a panic. I called the transportation office who informed me there was a substitute bus driver, and assured me that they would instruct her to come back to pick The Boy up. In the meantime, he had returned to bed, unwilling to go to school if he was going to be late.

At this point, The Man offered to take The Boy to school himself (along with a bribe of a donut) so that he could arrive on time. I gave The Boy the choice of waiting for his bus to return, or going with The Man, and he chose to go with The Man.

When the bus arrived, I went out to speak with the driver. She interrupted me before I could get my first sentence out, was extremely defensive and rude, making faces at me, and interrupting me many, many times. She even challenged the truth of what I was saying, and pulled another child up from his seat to “bear witness” that The Boy was not visible when she was there. I told her the arrangement we had with our regular bus driver, but she seemed much more concerned about whether or not I was accusing her of being late, which I obviously wasn’t.  I was shaking by the time I was finished and stalked back into the house.

Incidents like these can not only have immediate and damaging effects (like a meltdown, or refusal to go to school), but they can also have lasting effects on children like The Boy. It will be a long, long time before he can trust that his bus will not leave him behind. Drivers need to have patience with all students, but especially with those with special needs. Would this driver have waited ten seconds after honking and driven off if The Boy was in a wheelchair? Probably not, but she appeared to not have any regard for The Boy’s specific needs.

Everyone employed by the school district that comes into contact with our kiddos should have training about what autism is, the core deficits children with autism have, and how each employee can help students with special needs find success throughout their school day. Anything less is not acceptable.

This is a large excerpt from the letter I am sending to the Director of Transportation, courtesy copied to the Director of Special Education and the Superintendent.  I ain’t playin’ and it’s not over if you’re going to be rude to me.

6 Ways Schools Could Open Doors for Students with Special Needs

opening doorsPublic schools are being asked to do so much right now, and so much of what they are being forced to do is a waste of time. Music and the arts are being cut, students are overloaded with standardized tests, and even recess is being shortened so work can be completed. In short, schools are being forced to run like businesses, but our children are not raw materials, nor are they products.  They are children.  And when the pendulum swings back (I hope to God it does), when more rational heads prevail in remembering that we are teaching human beings how to be human beings, rather than filling little heads with facts, maybe then the schools will have an opportunity to begin filling gaps and opening doors for our students with special needs.  Here are some ways they could begin:

  1. Mentor/Mentee programs These programs connect students with an adult in the school community who can meet with them on a regular basis, build a positive relationship, and provide guidance to students.  The Boy has built this kind of relationship with the business and computer teacher at school, quite organically.  He doesn’t even have her as a teacher, but they use time with her as a reward for positive behaviors at school, and she is often a reason he wants to go to school.
  2. Peer to Peer programs I’ve written about how successful these programs can be not only for students with special needs, but for typical students, as well.  Building Relationships between kids, and providing avenues for them to learn about each other as people can only result in good things. When everyone’s needs are met, bullying just isn’t a thing.
  3. Peer Mediation programs These programs foster conflict resolution skills in our young people.  At first they are taught and coached through the steps of providing mediation for peers who are in conflict.  After practice, they become second nature, and the students involved with these programs become leaders, as they have the skills to help their peers relate to each other in positive ways.
  4. Social Skills programs Carving time out of a busy school day to provide direct instruction to students about how to initiate and maintain positive social interaction seems like it makes perfect sense for those students who naturally have defects in this area.  It can also make perfect sense for those students you may assume has these skills already, but may not, or may struggle with these skills privately.
  5. Critical Thinking Instruction More than anything else, we need to be teaching students how to really think, rather than regurgitate readily available information.  We need to be teaching them how to make rational decisions, how to determine whether a source is credible, how to examine their own thoughts and opinions, and how to interpret the world around them.  For special needs students, this can be especially difficult, but even more necessary as we prepare them for their adulthoods with varying degrees of assistance.
  6. Creativity and Problem Solving Instruction Children today do not have much opportunity to be creative.  And when we cut art and music programs, we are essentially saying that being creative is not a high priority in today’s job market – what could be further from the truth? There are many ways teachers can provide opportunities within their current limitations to foster creativity and problem solving, and many ways we can help special needs students be creative.

The great thing about school programs that benefit students with special needs is that they often benefit all students.  We assume that typical kids don’t struggle with the same things as those with special needs do, but they do.  They are often better at hiding it, because it may not be as dire a struggle.  What middle schooler do you know that wouldn’t benefit from a social skills class or a peer to peer program?  What kindergartner wouldn’t benefit from some opportunities to be creative?  What person on Earth would not benefit from having a mentor?

When we finally do something to correct the course of public schools, and begin to focus on the person rather than the content, these 6 programs would be a good start to guiding all of our students to being better human beings.

Making Money on Autism

There are lots of autism bloggers, and lots of single moms with kiddos on the spectrum. Lots of us have learned so much from experience, and lots of us want to share that because we know how hard it can be.  And there a few of us who have the ability to make a few bucks doing this.

Way back when I started this blog, one of the things that inspired me was the inability to find existing social stories online that weren’t for sale.  I was tired of being nickel-and-dimed for every little resource I needed for The Boy.  Others had experienced just what we were going through, and someone had to have a social story already written, so that I wouldn’t have to re-create the wheel every time, but they were all for sale. And money is hard to come by when your paying for uninsured therapies, prescriptions, diapers or your 5 year old… It’s tough.

I have long considered trying to take this blog to the next level, and maybe “go pro” which means trying to attract companies to advertise here. Most bloggers do this, and I don’t see it as trying to make money off of other autism or special needs parents.  Advertising is everywhere, and I don’t think anyone would see this as a blogger trying to take advantage of her audience.

There are other bloggers that sell stuff on their sites, as well.  And I think we have to be very careful when we head in that direction.  T-shirts are one thing.  Resources are another.  Trust me – I understand the sentiment behind it – when you work hard to create something, you have a tendency to want to protect it, and while you want to share it with the world, you feel you deserve something in return.  I get it.  But we cannot forget that person on the other end, spending money on therapy, weighted blankets, chewies, and special gluten-free ingredients.  Our community needs to remain one in which we share resources at little cost, and respect each other’s struggles. If we forget that, we’ve lost our way.

The autism community needs to stick together

5 Ways to Support the Newly Diagnosed

finding the path after diagnosis of autismI often think back to the day we got The Boy’s diagnosis.  The ex and I went our separate ways – he went back to work, and I drove to a nearby Kmart parking lot to process (i.e. cry my eyes out, hyperventilate, ask myself over and over “What are we going to do?” and eventually call a close friend to talk me through it.  Thank God for her.) The psychologist we had seen had written “Autism Society of America” on the back of a business card, suggested we look them up, and said goodbye.

Once I collected myself, I still didn’t know what I needed, or what our next steps were.  As I think most do, I went to the internet.  Unfortunately, the internet is a big place, and I’m not sure the right tools and support are readily accessible to someone doing their first post-diagnosis search.

So how can we support parents who are new to this whole kit and caboodle?

1.  Support local nonprofits that directly help our kiddos.  The more those groups are supported, the more visible they can be in the community, and the more likely it will be that someone hearing that diagnosis for the first time will recognize the group as a resource they can use.  This means supporting them with money, with attendance at events and workshops, and with your volunteer hours.  Yes, volunteer hours.  It may seem like we have the perfect excuse not to volunteer, but we have to give back if only to our own community – if we don’t, who will?

2.  Make your presence known at the school.  Kids with a new diagnosis will have parents with questions.  They will most likely be asking those questions at the school. If you have maintained a good relationship with staff while dealing with the school, they may just see you as a resource for parents who are new to this whole shindig, and may pass your name along.  Or if there is a group of you parents, even a social group, that goes for you, too.  Schools really do want to help, and may attempt to connect someone with questions to those who may have answers (that’s you!).

3.  Use social media to post “the good stuff” to your friends, and encourage them to share it.  Parents who have questions will inevitably be some of your friends, or friends of friends, and so on.  The more “the good stuff” gets shared and posted, the more people will see it, the more it will be found by those searching for it.  That’s how the interwebs works for good.

4.  When they come to your group, be welcoming.  You may think this goes without saying, but groups are a funny thing.  Sometimes, a group can get an attitude with newbies, and can be judgmental. You don’t have to like everyone who comes to the group for help and support, but the fact remains they need help (and they may need more help than others!).

5.  Respect the process.  People react differently to the news of a diagnosis.  Some will immediately seek out others for help, while others will remain private and need to sort through things on their own.  Don’t be pushy.  Allow them to come to terms with it, and just be a friend.  Just knowing there are others who are going through what you are going through goes a long way, especially at the beginning.

Special needs parents have many, many roles.  One of them should be “guide to others who have just joined the group.”  What would you add to this list?

Re-training

plannershot1The downside of having a son with autism in secondary school is the sheer numbers of teachers we have to re-train each year.  And I’m only half-joking.  Most of the teachers we have encountered since the Big School Switch of ’13, have been accommodating and flexible, and have fallen in love with The Boy relatively quickly, wanting to do anything in their power to help him succeed.  But here we are at the beginning of a new school year, dealing with stuff that is very clearly spelled out in his IEP, and the teachers are not yet implementing.

One of The Boy’s IEP goals directly relates to his use of the agenda, speaks to his difficulties in this area, yet within the first two weeks of school, we still only had one teacher ensuring he was utilizing it in his class. Then the homework hit the fan this week, when I had no idea two assignments even existed before they were due in science and social studies.

I emailed the teachers last night, basically copying and pasting from last year’s introductory email, explaining The Boy’s need for help with communication, planner use, and the dire need for them to let me know what the hell is going on, but stated in much more genteel language.  And I got some nice responses.  Yet in today’s planner entry, there was clearly still some misunderstanding from whoever-it-was that was writing in the planner (clearly not the teacher – an aide? a substitute? Who IS this person telling me that his assignment wasn’t finished and needed to be finished by tomorrow??).

And then there were the assignments we had busted our butts to make sure he got done, that were returned in his planner this evening without having even been turned in.  Yet another area of difficulty, yet another area in need of training.

After several emails, I finally got some traction and his program teacher has agreed to meet with his teachers tomorrow to review this stuff so we can get him going on the right track before he gets too behind. Thank goodness I don’t have to re-train her every year! She’s worth her weight in gold. :)

An Open Letter to the Mom in the Doctor’s Office Today

I overheard your friend (daughter? niece?) reading to you from that questionnaire today, and I took notice because of all of your “no” responses. I immediately remembered those soul-crushing, developmental, yes or no questions, the mix of defensiveness and hopelessness when you begin to understand just how far behind your little one is.

“Does your child point to an item s/he wants? Does your child turn pages of a book independently? Does your child say three words?…”

And on, and on, and on. I heard the tone of your voice change the more she asked. I heard you begin to whisper. I glanced at your face to see if you might cry, but you were holding it together. I guessed the tears may come later when you are alone, maybe before you fall asleep tonight.

And I watched your little one. I watched him smile, and observe the other children playing – he was watching close, but something was keeping him from playing along. He looked at me and made eye contact. I waved and smiled. He smiled bigger and looked to you for reassurance, but you didn’t notice.

I wanted to say, “This tall, gangly boy of mine sitting next to you didn’t do any of that stuff either. We had to use flash cards to teach him words. He didn’t point at anything.  They thought he was cognitively impaired because he played with the toys wrong.  But you know what? He is the best speller in his class and uses words like ‘misheard’ and ‘eclectic’ as an almost-seventh grader!”

I really wanted to say, “These questionnaires are a special kind of torture for us, and you are most definitely one of us. You are not alone.  Don’t discourage too quickly.  Be hopeful, because he needs you to be. I have been in exactly that spot where you are sitting and it is awful, but better days are ahead. Believe in that little boy.”

But I didn’t say anything because I’m not sure I would’ve wanted anyone to do that when I was in your place. Maybe I should have. Instead, I hope you get the support you need through this process, and that you realize quickly that he needs you to just do what you gotta do to get him as close as you can to where he needs to be.

And that there are lots of us rooting you on, even if silently from the chair next to you in the doctor’s office.

My little blond boy, once upon a time...

My little blond boy, once upon a time…

ESY Is Different Down Here

ESY, or Extended School Year, has been a mainstay of The Boy’s summer experience since he was six years old.  I have written about some of his experiences in the past, and he always looked forward to it when we lived up north.  Last year, he struggled with adapting to a summer day camp which did not include computers, and was not like school very much at all, although he ended up enjoying the experience and meeting some new (and long-lasting) friends.

Before we moved here, I asked some parents with whom I had connected in advance, through the autism society’s local chapter whether or not they knew anything about the local ESY program.  They had no idea what I was talking about…

“Uh-oh”, I thought.

When we went through the IEP process this year, the assistant director for special education for the school district was involved (because I was trying to get The Boy into his current program, and being the warrior mom that I need to be to get things done from time to time), and she indicated then that ESY for this summer would be a long-shot.  We would have to prove he needed it with data. “I’ve got six years of data backing me up,” I thought.

And this year’s IEP rolled around and his special ed teacher for language arts and math basically explained that even if he did qualify, which she clearly didn’t believe he did, it was very different from what we had experienced up north.  Down here, it was basically one-on-one tutoring with an aide for a few hours a week.

“Oh crap,” I thought.

I immediately began to devise activities with which I could supplement his summer camp – was there a computer camp or cartooning lessons I could find somewhere (and could I even afford it)?

The Boy’s program teacher called about two weeks later to let me know that they had determined that The Boy would qualify for ESY this year, because he had had it for so many years, and that they would continue to collect data next school year to determine whether or not he would qualify for the following year.

“Yay… kind of,” I thought.

Now we need to determine where this “ESY” experience will occur, and how often and for how long.  Luckily he will have his program teacher, which helps with the continuity.  But it remains to be seen how effective this brand of summer enrichment will be toward maintaining the structure and routine that most kids on the spectrum need through the summer months.

sandy boy