Monday, April 21, 2014

Beautiful in Its Time

I promised to share Mason's ideas about habits of faith in light of families dealing with autism becoming unchurched. Everything has a season. There is a time for every matter under heaven. God makes everything beautiful in its time. Since we cannot fathom His ways, we can wait and see what He has assigned for us and cling to Him during this dry season.

Some parents tag team (take turns on Sunday or attend different services). Some arrive in two cars. Some simply cannot make it. God is with us in all places and times: He knows when we rise and sit. He lays His hands on us to guide us and to hold us. Since He knows our thoughts, He knows when we long to worship Him with His people in His house but cannot because of our unique situation. We're always in His presence, even when we're changing a six-year-old's diaper.

I see His omnipresence as good news! The Father who sent His Son to meet the woman at the well, heal the sick, and be God in the flesh meets us where we are. We can draw great comfort that He's with us when we're stuck at home. Mason sees God as tender, compassionate, caring, and wise — better than any human father that has ever lived. We're with Him all the time! Our lives should have no separation between the secular and sacred, especially on Sundays! G. K. Chesterton paints the image beautifully in this poem:

You say grace before meals. All right.
But I say grace before the play and the opera,
And before the concert and the pantomime,
And grace before I open a book,
And grace before sketching, painting,
Swimming, fencing, boxing, walking, playing, dancing;
And grace before I dip the pen in the ink.


These habits are only a start. We shouldn't launch them all at once nor check them off like IEP goals. What little, daily things draw you to God? Take your time. Savor whatever moments come your way and leave checking off to the behaviorists.

Thought of God - God intends our spiritual life and earthly life to be one, so we can train faith habits anywhere, anytime. One habit is thought of God: "Happy-making, joyous thoughts, restful and dutiful thoughts, thoughts of loving and giving and serving, the wealth of beautiful thoughts with which every child's heart overflows." Since we're to be humble as children, we can hope for a heart full of beautiful thoughts. Relationship Development Intervention showed me how: slow down and focus on God's nonverbals. Something as mundane as dung beetles can make us rich toward God.

Dung beetles? Yes! I read a tidbit about dung beetles and their life cycle the weekend before last. Gross, but interesting stuff. What did we see on the nature walk at the wildlife refuge the following Friday? Dung beetles! I shared what I knew with two of our groups (we usually break up into four or five groups when we walk). It wasn't a coincidence because, two days later, my Sunday school class was taking turns reading Ezra 6. I read aloud the passage which included these words from the ESV: "Also I make a decree that if anyone alters this edict, a beam shall be pulled out of his house, and he shall be impaled on it, and his house shall be made a dunghill." On Monday morning, one student told me she heard a story about dung beetles on the radio on the way to school!

I think God weaves these threads into our lives to see if we are paying attention to His little pokes. While God may give us a booming call to do something big (such as opening a small, private school based on Mason's ideas in less than three months), He may also share delightful, little moments with us.

Bible Reading — Another habit on Mason's list is one we can cultivate at home. During my unchurched season, I wasn't regular in my Bible reading. I'm still not as regular as I'd like to be. If you're not well-versed in the Bible, why not pick something exciting like Daniel, Jonah, or Esther? Mason believed, "The narrative teaching of the Scriptures is far more helpful to children, anyway, than the stimulating moral and spiritual texts picked out for them in little devotional books." Tap into your inner child and read the Bible with a humble heart.

Read and narrate little bit at a time. Look at beautiful paintings or sculpture from that time in history. Look up places on the map and make your own Bible timeline. Daniel comes to life when you see the palace of Darius, the Ishtar gate, paintings like Blake's Nebuchadnezzar or Tanner's Daniel in the Lion's Den, or maps of Alexander's empire (wondering if he is the great horn or the mighty king). The Illustrated Bible Story by Story illuminates Bible reading beautifully.

Keep in mind that the idea isn't to become SUPER BIBLE READER with AMAZING LEGALISTIC POWERS! It's to feed on God's Word, meet with Him, and grow in grace and truth. Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit would instruct us in all things: surely, that includes the Bible. By opening the Word, we're inviting the Holy Spirit to be our teacher!

Regularity in Devotions — By devotions, Mason meant prayers and she thought it "a great thing for all of us to get the habit of 'saying our prayers' at a given time and in a given place." Devoting a set place and time for prayers is hard for parents of autistic children. Life is unpredictable and we never know when the timer is counting down to a meltdown. We can pray anywhere, anytime because God is everywhere. Jesus recommended finding a secret spot in your home and, when on the go, He did seek quiet places to pray, even late at night. Because some of our children have insomnia, praying in the wee hours of the night may be a good fit. Don't worry if you are too frustrated or too exhausted or too sad to say the "right" words. God has given us the Holy Spirit to speak on our behalf when we're speechless. Just as we long for our children to come to us, God longs for us to come to Him.

Habit of Praise — Music delights us and makes worship feel natural. Mason wrote, "Praise and thanksgiving come freely from the young heart; gladness is natural and holy, and music is a delight. The singing of hymns at home and of the hymns and canticles in church should be a special delight." God must value worship songs since the longest book of the Bible is pure music. David, a man after God's heart, wrote many psalms. Why not sing thoughts of God at home?

We focus on one hymn for a time and then learn another. I prefer sheet music to plain words to let Pamela see notes moving on a page and harmonies working together. While I prefer hymns and choral pieces like Handel's Messiah, Beethoven's Ninth, Mozart's Requiem, and Bruckner's motets, you might prefer something else. What kind of music draws you closer to God? The side benefit is that a spectrum child might enjoy worship services more if the music is familiar.

It amazes me how God works through the person choosing music for a service to touch your heart. Last year, not long after we'd adopted "Great Is Thy Faithfulness" as our school song, we sang it in church. I felt blessed. The other day a family from our school attended my church's worship service. Two of the three hymns were ones we've learned at school this year ("Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing" and "Amazing Grace"). The student had specifically asked for the school to learn the former and the first piece she asked to learn on the guitar is the latter. She felt loved that morning!

Habit of Sunday-keeping — God didn't need a day of rest after creating the world, but He knows that humans do. Parents of special needs children struggle to juggle everything, much less rest for a full day. When my two children were little, Steve worked long hours and traveled. We didn't get much rest. We didn't have family nearby. We had just moved and didn't even have friends. So, we tag teamed rest. Steve stayed with the kids while I got my coffee and book fix. Steve grabbed a smoothie and went to the video store by himself. We all headed to a nature trail and walked. I was always amazed at how well just a few hours of relaxation cured crankiness. As Mason said more eloquently, "How healing to the jaded brain is the change of thought and occupation the seventh day brings with it."

If anyone knows how jaded a brain can get, it's families raising spectrum children! Keeping Sunday means quiet, glad, serene, instead of the rigid and dull ruled by frowning naysayers. She recommended "Sunday stories, Sunday hymns, Sunday walks, Sunday talks, Sunday painting, Sunday knitting even, Sunday card-games." It doesn't even really need to be Sunday, much less an entire day. After a long week of school, Saturdays work better for me. I'm tired and not ready to think about what needs to be done by Monday. I read books for my own enrichment, keep my diverse notebooks, practice my hobbies (I have many), go out for pizza with Pamela, etc. I still have chores, but I only do what I feel like doing.

Right now, an hour, much less a full day may seem out of reach. I pray a day will come when you can come closer to Sunday-keeping. In the mean time, grab fifteen minutes here and there or an hour of respite. If all you can manage is to kick up your feet and sip a cup of coffee, give yourself the gift of Sabbath in the best sense of the word.

Rest. Calm. Peace.

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Ideas about Nature Clothed upon with Facts as They Occur

Our business is to give children the great ideas of life, of religion, history, science; but it is the ideas we must give, clothed upon with facts as they occur, and must leave the child to deal with these as he chooses. ~ Charlotte Mason
Nature study is the foundation of science because it offers many ideas, clothed upon with facts, in the environment in which living things belong. Our guide on the Bulls Island trip is used to having groups that focus on the product: getting to the beach, exploring it, and finding two souvenirs to take home. The mile-and-a-half walk is simply the way to hit the beach and nab the shells, sand dollars, and other treasures. Going on nature walks every week has taught us that the process of walking a path offers treasures of its own.

The very first thing that caught the eye of our young naturalists was the muddy tracks. We all agreed that they had to be raccoon tracks for we had seen them in the snow at our beloved Santee last February. A couple of the younger students wondered if those were Rascal's tracks. We also spotted some deer tracks. The guide does not typically have students interested in little things like tracks, so our headmaster had to run ahead and let him know why we were lingering.



Our guide has taken many groups, school groups, adult groups, etc. on this path. He knows what to spotlight along the way — things that capture people's attention. He stopped beneath this tree and pointed out the series of holes drilled into the branch. He asked what might have made these holes. He expected insects or woodpeckers. Hands popped up and our kids blurted, "Yellow-bellied sapsucker." "We have one at our school." "It's made holes in our tree." "We found a dead one and drew pictures of it."

His jaw dropped. "You're the first group that has nailed it on the first try."

Our kids recognized it immediately because they have seen it themselves. Parents waiting to pick up students after school have watched a yellow-bellied sapsucker drill for sap from the red maple tree. Kids making entries in their nature notebooks have heard the tapping and looked up to see the bird seeking nourishment. Two weeks ago, my group noticed a pine tree at Santee with the same series of holes with sap pouring out of them. One student piped up, "A yellow-bellied sapsucker must have done that!"

This kind of information is easily recalled because the brain has stored short episodes of this feathered friend. They've studied a carcass carefully to glean details one cannot observe with a live specimen. Firsthand knowledge is easier to recall than disembodied facts memorized from a textbook. When our students hit high school biology, they'll recognize lichen they've seen on trees in many colors including pink! They'll remember how much more striking it looks on rainy days.




When they learn in high school biology that lichen is a symbiotic relationship between fungi and algae, they won't have to wonder what they are. They'll have seen example after example in many shapes and colors of fungi, decomposing their space. They'll remember the time we had a massive algae bloom in the fish tank and we conducted experiments (such as turning out the lights for a week and creating a blackout with trash bags for another week to kill off algae). Taxonomic terms won't be something to be memorized and will be drawn from memories of personal experiences.




Speaking of algae, we know that the youngest ones will stop confusing "allergies" with "algaes" as they learn more. They will know the source of the yellow dust that makes many of us so miserable this time of year. They will eventually blame the small male pine cones for the pollen that causes sneezing, runny noses, and burning eyes, not the woody female ones that most people associate with pine trees.


They will also have stored memories of adults curious to know about things and longing to know more. Adults with their own questions about living things. Adults who don't need reward-driven incentives to fuel the desire to find out more about God's handwork. Thus, they see us ask the name of something or come back a week later with possibilities we have researched. They watch us share our favorite nature books or post photographs to each other on Facebook. They hear us joke about coming back to Bulls Island to find out what color blooms on the thistle.




If you have no idea where to begin, I'll let you in on a big secret. Fifteen years ago, when I started down the path of Charlotte Mason homeschooling, I knew very little about nature study. Just get out there. Look at things. Ask questions. Research online. Get excited when you learn something new. Read books written by naturalists. Before long, you'll be so inspired about nature study that you won't be able to stop!

Monday, April 07, 2014

Where Are They?

The CDC recently announced the latest rate of autism: 1:68. Back in 1991 when we first suspected Pamela of having autism, the literature said it was 2-5 in 10,000. I had to drive to another county to find a family like ours. The numbers are so high that even small churches should have at least one family with autism attending regularly. Unfortunately, some families stay home. Here are some reasons why:

Traditional, orderly services often work well for our children. They are predictable, quiet, etc.

However, parents feel embarrassed if their autistic kids — who look old enough to "know better" — wiggle or make auditory self-stims. People stare at us when this happen. Or, our kids makes loud remarks about that fat guy or that old woman or the boring sermon or the bald preacher. Or, getting everyone dressed in their Sunday best to church on time is impossible. Or, someone has a meltdown in the car on the way over because of a detour. Or, the preacher who gets exuberant during a sermon preaches too loud. Or, there is some anomalous noise in the sound system that only our children hear and it drives them bonkers. Or, our gluten-free, casein-free child runs straight to the donut table, which we will regret the next day. Or, some do-gooder decides that a teen isn't qualified to care for your six-year-old in a room nearby while you're at choir practice (true story). Or, children's church is too loud or doesn't exist or has nobody equipped to handle our kid or the "cry room" is too loud or....

Contemporary services often work well for our children. They allow our kids to wiggle, make noise, and wear their daily uniform (sweat pants).

However, parents feel embarrassed if their autistic kids — who look old enough to "know better" — make auditory self-stims during that quiet, reflective hand waving song. People stare at us when this happen. Or, our kids cannot handle the unpredictable nature of service that has no bulletin to cue them when the end is in sight. Or, our kids makes loud remarks about tattoos, pink hair, saggy pants, or that awesome Sponge Bob shirt. Or, our kids sneaked a water bottle in the car, has wet pants, and refuses to calm down until we go home and change and by then it's too late. Or, someone has a meltdown in the car on the way over because of insomnia the night before. Or, the sound system for those rocking worship songs are way too loud. Or, our active, clumsy child knocks over the donut table. Or, children's church is too loud or doesn't exist or has nobody equipped to handle our kid or the "cry room" is too loud or....

Or, for some reason, we parents lack skins thick enough to get over....

"__________ doesn't look autistic."

"There's nothing wrong with that brat who only needs a pop on the hiney."

"I read this book that your child might be demon-possessed."

"How can you homeschool? You're not qualified to handle autistic children."

"Why don't you homeschool?"

"One little cookie can't hurt."

"I don't believe in medications."

"Your kid needs meds."

"Did you see the program about [insert latest autism cure] the other day?"

Eye rolls and giggles from the cool teens who sit in the back row where you sit in order to get away with your fifteen-year-old who still carries Barney to church.

The inability for Sunday school coordinators to see that your teenaged child would be better off attending a developmentally appropriate class (second grade) instead of the teen class or special needs class. 

Why can't we get over this stuff? If our kids don't sleep, we don't sleep. Or, worry about the future or just the next day's tall order keep us up. Or, we never get a break from our kids. Or, if we do get a break, we worry about our kids. Or, we are exhausted by trying to give normalcy to typical children and cannot wake up for church.

There are wonderful, compassionate, kind, loving families who have done everything under the sun for the child and, with puberty, comes the downward spiral and the overwhelmed teen leaves bruises. How can they take someone who might lash out and hurt someone at church?

Every family and situation is so unique, I can offer no answers. You probably know a family dealing with autism who never makes it to church but wishes they could. Why not ask them what you can do to help make church work better for their family? Then, see what you can do about making it happen. Even if it doesn't work, they will appreciate that you tried.

At the next Charlotte Mason carnival, I will share her thoughts on habits for families who just can't make it to church for the reasons I listed above and more.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Nature Walks: Building Dynamic Thinking for Our SPD Kids

We'd been looking forward to Island Quest, an exploration of South Carolina's barrier island, Bulls Island, for a month! Unfortunately, the day was overcoast, wet, rainy with temperatures in the 60s. Imagine taking children ranging in age five to fifteenish, some with autism, sensory processing disorders, or other reasons to struggle with resiliency. Did the overcast, cloudy skies forecast doom our nature walk?


No! Students, staff, and chaperones had a blast in spite of spending two-hours in a car full of kids, a half-hour on a ferry, walking three miles — half of the trek in rain showers — BEFORE eating lunch.

Yes, at dark moments when the sun had abandoned us, we felt doubt and discomfort. We were soaking wet. Hair dripping with water. Sea water giving us free facials. Chilled by wind gusts. We cycled through the five stages of grieving our dampened condition and let go! We embraced the quiet rain and enjoyed whatever the day gave us.


Wonder is what saved the day! Since the beginning of the school year, we had faithfully walked the nearby wildlife refuge every Friday. We'd walked it on hot days, cold days, wet days, muddy days, snowy days, icy days. Kids who hated going outside have fallen in love with the creation. Kids who couldn't stand the sight of squiggly things now see beauty in them. The habits of walking regularly and of lengthening attention spans have reaped a harvest. We'd progressed from that first disastrous trek in which chased down little ones darting here, there, and everywhere and seeing nothing to a group that impressed the naturalist who guided us (more on that in another post). They see wonder in animal tracks and bird songs; little things like snails, rocks, lichen, moss, fern, and fungi; big things like alligators, live oak trees, and rotten logs.

How do we scaffold wonder?

We walk every week, any weather, with rare exceptions. An outing lasts at least an hour and a half. Our trail is a mile long, but it's more like a mile and a half due to rabbit trails.


We assign children to one adult guide. We space the groups out on the trail so they learn to follow one person. We vary the guide and the group composition every week to promote flexibility for our static thinkers. This time, we all went together and we all followed one guide. Months of nature walks meant they could adjust to a different game plan.


At school, we spend time outdoors. We notebook outdoors. We eat outdoors. We play outdoors. We work outdoors. It feels natural to be outdoors for several hours.


We prepare without over-preparing. Even though there was only a thirty percent chance of rain, we came with boots, raincoats, cheap emergency ponchos, etc. We had bugspray, hats, and sunscreen in case the sun came out in full force. We didn't give too much information. Would you tell kids they had to walk almost three miles before they could eat lunch?


We adapt whether it's hanging out our clothes to dry or finding joy in broken things.


We overcome our own discomfort with things that disgust us.


We stop and study interesting things. Wonder thrives.


We treasure keepsakes.



We respect living things.


We respect our guides.


We enjoy being together.



We dance in the rain.




Pamela did have a moment in which she was quite miserable. We had just left the beach. It was a wee bit cold and rainy. She had figured out we'd have to walk over a mile before we could stop and eat. She fussed and wanted to stop. I told her that there were no roads and the only way we were getting back was by walking. Otherwise, we'd be stuck like The Swiss Family Robinson and we'd have to build a hut and survive on whatever lived on the island. She accepted my perspective, and that was her only moment of real complaining. The day offered enough wonder to make the discomfort and long trek worthwhile.

When we finally reached the boat for our return voyage, it began to rain again. God rewarded us for our perseverance and showed off his creation. We spotted dolphins following our wake far off in the distance. All manner of birds greeted us as we slipped into port. Even the drizzle cannot stop nature's beauty and bounty.