Thursday, May 31, 2007

A Little Tap on the Shoulder

Yesterday, I was finishing up my presentations and handouts for the conference (the feedback form is still in the hopper). I was carefully studying one of my references, sitting at the table in the homeschool room. Suddenly, I felt a little tap on my shoulder and I looked up--it was Pamela! Before we started RDI, she would have just broadcasted what was on her mind into the air and repeated it, more and more forcefully, until I paid attention to her. Now, she knows to get my attention first and then speak to me when I orient my face to hers.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Bearing Fruit in Due Time

It's much better, I think, to assume that the child is doing his part, and that the seed you have sown will bear fruit in due time.
From a letter written by Annie Sullivan, May 8, 1887.

Last year, I reread the book, The Story of My Life by Helen Keller, a book I devoured in high school. We never had one of those water-pump moments with Pamela, but Anne Sullivan's philosophy of education is so much like Charlotte Mason's that I gained a new appreciation for her genius. Right now, we are sowing little seeds via RDI, and today I saw it bear fruit.

My mother, who lives across the street, has a wonderful garden, blooming with tomatoes, asparagus, roses, persimmons, banana peppers, and four kinds of berries. Pamela loves her Oma's raspberries, and three raspberries were ripe yesterday--the first fruits of the season. Mom handed them to me for Pamela, and I strolled home with three berries in one hand and a bag of stuff in the other. I walked into the house very excited and acting mysteriously. I teased Pamela, "Guess what I have?"

She was very interested and ran to the kitchen to peek in the bag I had left on the counter (a big disappointment, of course). So, I told her, "No, it's in my hand!"

She ran up to me eagerly and I said, "First you have to open your mouth and close your eyes." She had the biggest smile on her face, but she was so eager that she kept peeking. So, I playfully chided her about peeking, and she laughed and smiled.

Then, I said, "Here, you can touch it and try to guess." The moment she did she blurted out, "Raspberries!" and I congratulated her. She closed her eyes and opened her mouth and I fed her the raspberries one at a time. Pamela's smiles were huge during this little episode and she was just delighted.

While this was not a ground-breaking, water-pump moment, the following verse (Luke 2:19) about Mary comes into my mind:
But Mary treasured all these things, pondering them in her heart.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Sneaky Pamela!

I have been flying solo as an RDI lone ranger since March 7. What follows here is a quick recap of what we have been doing, followed by an explanation and clip of Pamela's blossoming emotion sharing. Think of this post as an eleven-week progress report. (Mind you, Pamela is an old lady in the autism world, being twelve years past the magical age of six in which neural plasticity is supposed to vanish.)

I am very impressed with how beautifully Pamela has taken to the RDI lifestyle. I started with one daily activity session and by changing my habits. The first thing that kicked in was paying more attention to our faces. She started having fun with my exaggerated facial expressions. She has grown to enjoy baking with me, too: birthday cake, pancakes, brownies, and bread in bread machine. She is even starting to make requests about what we might bake. In April 2007, we launched the Barbie Kitty Condo Project (a locked box) game, in which she explored novel objects, anticipated future events, referenced my nonverbal communication and declarative statements, lingered to chat, referenced me in uncertain situations, followed my eye gaze, and used her imagination in theorizing about novel objects.

While she is not where she needs to be with episodic memory, she is growing in leaps and bounds in experience sharing! We started to see it emerge at the end of April. In May, I also began experimenting with how to handle Pamela's scripting in a way that keeps the relationship intact. We also work on RDI in the community, having found the self-check out line at Wal-Mart and even the post office great places to practice our RDI habits. We are seeing more incidents of her expressing her emotions while communicating to make a point.

We filmed this first clip of hot potato on March 15, 2007. I am working very hard to encourage her to smile with super exaggerated facial expressions, lots of unexpected sounds, productive uncertainty (when her brother tosses a grape) and heightened stimulation. Her smiles are not a broad and warm as what you will see in a more recent clip.

We filmed the recent clip on May 24, 2007. I do not have to work as hard and many of her smiles come naturally from the enjoyment of the game. We are very excited by this development because games used to bore her. Thanks to RDI, she is learning to enjoy playing games as a way to spend time together and just bask in the moment.

To teach Pamela "Go Fish", we started by playing with open hands (our cards laid out on the table face up). We used a combination of verbal and non-communication during the play of the game ("Do you have a ____________?" is a question she mastered a few years back thanks to the Association Method). Pamela needed to play this way for two weeks before being comfortable playing with a closed hand. When we made that transition, I bought a cardholder to help her manage the cards without assistance.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Give Her the Oscar!

Pamela asked what was for dinner tonight and did not find my answer pleasing. She did not unleash a tantrum, which is her typical modus operandus. Instead of showing raw emotion, she walked up to me and deliberately made a frowny face with wrinkled brows (not the natural look of disgust that spreads across her face when she helps me knead dough). She made this fake, phony face (if you saw it, you would know it was a put-on) and said, "Pamela hates meat. I want hot dogs." It was such a bad acting job, but I loved it because she was trying so hard to convince me with her facial expression.

So, I just had to give her the Oscar . . . Mayer for her performance!

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Hello, Kitty!

Last week was a big week for many reasons. (1) Pamela started present tense verbs (ala the association method) and began using the Reading Milestones program to practice syntax (her reading is fine). (2) Pamela finished Level 5 of Making Math Meaningful. (3) Pamela finally met her toy cat from the Barbie Kitty Condo project begun a few weeks back. (4) Pamela started a new locked box game with the goal of referencing my face when uncertain.

Pamela worked on several important skills during the kitty project. She figured out how to put new objects together (sometimes, on her own; sometimes, referencing me for more information). She learned to think about the meaning of each new object and anticipate what might be in the locked box. Often, I let her figure out the answer through my nonverbal communication and declarative statements. She learned to linger longer, come back for more conversation, and control her urge to get on with the next part of our day. She learned to reference my face for information when unusual things happened like when an object was missing from the collection, to anticipate that something would be missing, and to figure out what was missing in advance. She practiced using her imagination in theorizing to what all the objects pointed and concluded correctly that it was a cat about a week before finding the last object.

Some readers have wondered how to set up something like this for boys. One possibility is Legos. Or you could buy videos, books, or DVDs and hide one magnetic letter in the box each day to spell out the title.

Pamela has started a new collection with locked box (a Barbie Table and Kitchen Chairs Playset), and I have two broad goals in mind at present. One is for very unexpected things to happen, each time something different, requiring her to reference me in uncertain situations. So far, the locked box has been empty, puzzle pieces were in the wrong box, I have forgotten under which cup/card/placemat things were hidden, etc. I will be interested to see how she regulates herself and if she continues to turn to me for reassurance. Since Pamela references me so well, I am setting up situations in the game in which she must reference her brother for information. This gives David the opportunity to provide clear non-verbal cues to her and Pamela the chance to learn to reference her younger, but much larger brother.

First Episode of the Barbie Kitty Condo Project
Previous Episode of Barbie Kitty Condo Project

Sunday, May 13, 2007

RDI Lifestyle Afternoon

On Friday, Pamela helped me prepare a package for an RDI lifestyle activity. She handed me necessary items (tape and scissors) based upon eye gaze and referencing. She held the box shut while I taped it and she cut the tape. Pamela copied the receiver's address onto these label strips. Then, she wrote our address. She did not remember the numbers for our street address and zip code, so Pamela guessed and referenced my face to see if she guessed the number correctly. Then, she handed me the receiver's address strips, which I applied to the box. She applied the strips for the return address. Then I taped them to the box securely, and Pamela cut the tape for me. At the post office, Pamela handed the package to the postal clerk as well as the money, put dollar bills back in my wallet, and threw the receipt in the trash.

Pamela had requested a party to celebrate a math milestone: she starts Making Math Meaningful, Level 6 on Monday! So, we shopped for food, pizza, ice cream, and cake decorating supplies, going through the self-check out line for more eye gaze and referencing opportunities. At home, she helped me bake the cake, frost it, and decorate it as we did on her birthday. She also learned how to make pizza from scratch (if you count gluten-free, casein-free pizza crust mix as scratch).

I have noticed that, in situations requiring high levels of concentration, Pamela's emerging RDI skills (referencing, following eye gaze, communicating non-verbally, and emotion sharing) diminish. For example, when making a decision about what toy or type of cake decorating material to pick, she gets distracted. When the aisle seems crowded or busier than usual, she is more spacey. The pizza making absorbed her concentration because the process included entirely novel steps: opening cans with a newly purchased electric can opener (gracias, Alan), kneading dough, oiling the pan, rolling out the dough, spreading the sauce, slicing toppings (black olives, palmitos, and sausage) with a knife, and sprinkling them over the pizza.

All told, we probably spent about two solid hours in an RDI mode. I think what I like best about RDI is efficiency. We end up working on socialization at home and in the community as well as self-help skills, plus I have a helper in the kitchen!

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Scripters Anonymous

One feature of autism that distinguishes it from a language disorder is echolalia (echoing memorized word patterns either immediately or much later). In the movie, Rainman, Raymond Babbitt rocked and repeated Abbot and Costello's "Who's on First?" skit to calm himself. Echolalia can be much more sophisticated than that. Pamela memorized whole chunks of word patterns and used them when she thought appropriate. For example, when she was five, she had memorized the mournful tone of Baloo in the Jungle Book, "Mowgli, Mowgli, come back!" and repeated it when she was sad and trying to comfort herself. This description fits what we saw:
Echolalia is reflective of how the child processes information. The child with autism processes information as a whole "chunk" without processing the individual words that comprise the utterance. In processing these unanalyzed "chunks" of verbal information, many children with autism also process part of the context in which these words were stated, including sensory and emotional details. Some common element from this original situation is then triggered in the current situation which elicits the child's echolalic utterance.
We first started addressing Pamela's language way back in 1991, when she was two years old. We could not find much information because Pamela was at the beginning of increase in the rate of autism. We had to improvise while we kept on top of emerging research and started Pamela off with sign language. When her echolalia emerged, we opted to mold it and use it, rather than discourage it. For example, Pamela picked up one phrase "It's Sunday" advertising a show aired on that day of the week. Every day, we would use that phrase "It's _______". Then, when she could do that, we would work on negation "It's not _______". After that, we twisted it to, "Yesterday was ________" and "Tomorrow's _______". We eventually transitioned to months and seasons. One little jingle afforded a great deal of mileage. This word pattern started out as a stim and, as such gave us many opportunities to practice new language.

Today, books are dedicated to teaching scripts that help autistic children learn to converse. This still would not have helped Pamela because she has a hard time memorizing scripts unless they are jazzed up for "viewers like you" (*ahem* a new scripted line). We did not figure out until recently that Pamela can memorize poetry with multi-sensory methods and have known for several years that meaningful progress in syntax comes in seven multi-sensory steps! Children who can memorize scripts can also become dependent upon the scripts and unsure of what to do with people who fail to follow the script. Thus, researchers have developed ways to fade scripts.

I am not a fan of the formal teaching of scripts, and I tend to concur with RDI's recommendation to avoid them. Anyone who has been sucked into scriptland knows that sense of helplessness as your sanity evaporates. We have tried a variety of techniques to teach flexibility: laughing at unexpected twists I made in the script, making her own twists, being silly with pauses, changes in pitch, sound effects, etc. Monkeying around with scripts taught Pamela to go with the flow and enjoy surprises.

One of Pamela's issues is that she does not always realize when she confuses people with references to her scripts. She has a couple of patient aunts who play along and that is it! Lately, I have been experimenting with ways to discourage scripting without discouraging Pamela from speaking and interacting with us.

* Ignoring It - Ignoring scripting is the least effective strategy in my experience. When I ignore Pamela, she gets annoyed and will repeat the script prompt followed by "Say it!" In this case, Pamela wagged her finger at me and badgered me. Ignoring her only intensified her nagging.

* Sad Reaction - After she started wagging her finger, I become very quiet, stuck out my poochie lip, and looked down at my feet. Pamela did something splendid. She walked up to me, studied my face, smiled, and said, "Sad." Then, she abruptly transitioned to the locked box.

* Springing off of It - Pamela started a Betty Crocker script, so I declared in off-script sentences, "We're just like Betty Crocker! You could be the Betty Crocker of gluten-free, casein-free." She clasped her hands and giggled with delight at my surprising comment.

* Adapting It - I adapt the script to her task. Pamela said, "You must be 18 or older to order." I ignored her, so she came back to it, "You must . . . I must . . ." She was stirring her batter, so I said, "stir and stir and stir." She laughed and giggled since she likes twisting scripts.

* Distracting Her - Sometimes, I can distract Pamela by gasping and turning my gaze to the next step in whatever we are doing. I have also succeeded by using declarative language to switch topics completely. In this case, I started talking about the need to stir the batter thoroughly until all the dry ingredients to become wet. Later, Pamela was stuck on her, "You must . . . " prompt. We had just added the pecans, so I asked her about her preference on how to say this nut, "Pamela, do you prefer PEE-can or pe-CAHN?" She persisted, so I added, "You must . . . eat . . . PECAAAHHNNNSSS!"

* Saying the Wrong Thing - I often say something wrong to encourage flexibility. She was stuck on the "You must" train, so I said, "Eat spinach." She prompted, "You must be" and I returned, "29!" We have been doing this for years, so she loves when I say the wrong things.

* Reacting to Her Script Twists - Sometimes, she twists her own script as a joke. This time, she said, "You must be 18 to . . ." while reaching for a utensil. She paused and glanced at me to see my reaction when she sneakily added, "die". Pamela is about the happiest person you will ever meet and not morbid about death. I think she was trying to surprise me with something entirely unexpected. I exaggerated my reaction by covering my mouth and said, "Nooooo! We don't want that to happen. You made a joke! That was a joke!" Then she confirmed it by saying, "Only to order!"

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Speaking in the Moment!

This week is monumental for Pamela! Last week, we wrapped up our Round-Up preposition stories (page 15) ala the Association Method last week and, on Monday, began present tense verbs! She has struggled with present tense for years (is eat instead of eat and eats), confusing it with present progressive tense (pages 15-16) (is eating). When Pamela was younger, I drilled this syntax ala ABA-style, but ended up frustrated because she needed the methodical, multi-sensory methods applied in the Association Method.

One of the staff members at DuBard recommended the Reading Milestones program as a nice supplement to the Association Method. I won an eBay auction for all ten Level 1 primers and workbooks for half the price of a brand new set ($83 versus $209--quotes include shipping and handling). The problem is that all the sentences are in present tense, not present progressive tense, so I decided to stray from Teaching Language Deficient Children for a spell and introduce present tense first. After all, she has already mastered present tense for sees, has, and wants for singular and plural subjects as well as first, second, and third person subjects. I might as well use the material at hand. Each primer has six stories, so, with ten primers, that equals sixty school days or twelve weeks of material. That will afford plenty of time to work through singular and plural; first, second, and third person; pronouns; etc.

The workbooks are too basic for Pamela because they work on printing and spelling, skills Pamela has had for many years. I decided to snap photographs of the all the pages for a story. I use the images from the workbook to develop my own worksheets in Excel that are more Charlotte Mason friendly and with greater focus on syntax mastered by Pamela. Even better, since I am not consuming the workbooks or primers, I will be able to retrench some of the money invested into these workbooks (thank you, eBay). If I time the sale during the summer when educators are searching for materials, I might do well.

In all, she does four pages a day, tailored to her needs and abilities. This looks like a lot of work, but once I got my format and figured out a consistent way to manipulate images, I spend about as much time preparing as I did before. The first page warms up her brain in practicing the syntax du jour. The next page works on order in storytelling (first, second, and last), another weak spot for her. After that, another page allows her to practice answering questions with syntax she already knows for maintenance. My focus is not purely comprehension, but rather syntax. The last page is pure Charlotte Mason style: copywork (top), written narration (middle), and dictation (bottom).

Friday, May 04, 2007

An Anatomy of Experience Sharing

Analytical to the core, I like to analyze things to go well so that I can replicate success. Last Wednesday's brownie baking session was so chock full of warm emotions that I think a post-mortem is in order. I reviewed the video clips and realized how Pamela needs a "warm-up" to help her share emotions. One thing I did was an unexpected action; too much of this annoys Pamela, but, if done at the right time, catches her interest. In this case, after she handed me the can of baking powder to remove the lid for her, I put it on my head. While I did not make her laugh or smile, I did catch her attention!

Recently, Pamela has learned to enjoy referencing me for information. In this case, I turn my gaze to a tool or ingredient and, because the recipe is in my head, she has to point and check my face to see if she is correct. She finds this process amusing. She enjoys being right like any person, but she does not mind being wrong either because she thinks my "wrong" expressions are funny. Some autistic children do not enjoy referencing, but fortunately it strikes Pamela's funny bone.

Spotlighting a moment in time by referring to the past is part of emotion sharing. In this case, I said, "Open, open, open . . . like opening . . . the door," while she tried to crack the egg. She picked off a piece of shell, so I added, "Sometimes, it helps if you give it a good crack" and I cracked it and gasped when it worked. Then I added, "And, now, open . . . open," modulating my voice, while I handed her the egg to open. She smiled with anticipation. For the first time, she opened an egg without pieces of the shell falling into the bowl. So, I spotlighted this by saying, "Alright! You're getting much better." When she looked at me, I said, "Do you remember the last time when you smashed it? And, this time you opened it" and her face opened into a pretty smile at that memory.

When I was pouring the vanilla into the teaspoon held by Pamela, I built up anticipation by pretending to pour, abruptly pulling up the bottle, and making the sound, "Woop!" She smiled and, when I finally poured the vanilla, her expression brightened even more. Notice how Pamela is glancing at me as she smiles.

Sometimes, my reaction can heighten shared enjoyment. In this case, Pamela was trying to pour the coconut milk into the bowl. Unfortunately, the thick layer of fat on top held up the process until Pamela tipped the can far enough that the milk suddenly whooshed into the bowl with a loud plop! She smiled and looked up at me. I was laughing and covered my mouth with my hands in an exaggerated expression of surprise. She confirmed her desire to laugh by seeing my reaction. The next time we bake with coconut milk, I plan to remind her of what happened the last time to work on episodic memory.

Because Pamela was enjoying this experience so much, she did not get too flustered by an unexpected guest. Steve walked into the room, grabbed a spoon, and tasted the batter. In this picture, Pamela is voicing her opinion (it was not positive). But, she does not show any hints of melting down. She continues spooning batter into the pan.

Steve grew up in a Latin culture in which a kiss on the cheek is part of ordinary greetings with family. He gave her a customary peck and Pamela pauses to turn her cheek, but manages to hang onto the spoon.

Pamela continues spooning and is determined to finish her task. She tells her dad, "That's it! That's it!" stating her desire to get back to work.

Pamela's Pecan Brownies

3/4 cup white rice flour
1/4 cup sorghum flour
1 cup cocoa powder
1 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
1 tsp vanilla
1 14-oz can coconut milk
2 eggs
2/3 cup pecans (or walnuts)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Put all dry ingredients in a large bowl (the first five ingredients). Stir until thoroughly mixed. Put all liquids in the bowl. Stir until the dry ingredients are wet. Fold in the pecans. The batter is so good, Pamela's daddy cannot resist a taste! For thin brownies, pour into a 9X13 pan and bake for 25 minutes. For thick brownies, pour into a 8x8 pan and bake longer (for the time, try the toothpick test).

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Excuses, Excuses, Excuses

I have been a bit busy between the new RDI stuff plus Steve traveling more than he is home plus an extended family situation needing some TLC plus my seasonal allergies (which I treat with local bee pollen and homeopathic eye drops) plus singing engagements for my trio. Yesterday was so exciting I just have to share.

Pamela and I baked brownies for the church's Mother-Daughter Day Banquet (another gig for the trio). The first time we baked brownies seven weeks ago, I did not film it. But, I remember comparing Pamela's interactions to a video clip at the RDI site about making Jell-O. Even though the teen seemed lower functioning than Pamela is, he and his mother engaged each other so much better than Pamela and I. I felt disappointed by the flatness of our interactions.

I did film Pamela baking on her birthday five weeks ago. We had improved somewhat, but nothing like today. The clip below is 179 seconds in length, and Pamela glanced at my face an average of once every fourteen seconds and smiled once a minute. She was very flat in her emotions and need something dramatic to smile and share that smile. She smiled while cracking an egg, but did not share her happiness with me until a pan crashed or David made a comment about the batter being mud. I had to work very hard to encourage her to reference me. Sometimes, she was awkward.

Compare that to a clip from yesterday. The new clip is 65 seconds long and Pamela references me once every five seconds with less effort from me to attract her attention. She smiled four times in one minute and shared her happiness by looking at my face half the time she smiled. She required less drama to smile! Our interactions have less awkwardness, too.

Tomorrow, I will post the brownie recipe!