Thursday, February 26, 2009


Pamela left me flabbergasted for two days in a row. . .

Yesterday morning, we felt like pinching ourselves. Steve and I woke up at six in the morning, and our early bird, Miss Pamela, was already out of her nest. Steve ran, and she did not melt down! He headed to an appointment at 8:30 before work and left the laptop at home, and no drama. Then, he drove to the office at about nine in the morning, which was late for him. We were too stunned to spotlight any of these moments.

What do I mean by spotlight? I have not clearly explained my understanding of this technique before, so here goes! The book My Baby Can Dance describes spotlighting, or "the art of communicating to effectively encode an episodic memory," in the following way:
Spotlighting is achieved by any type of contrast or noticeable change in an established rhythm. The adult guide creates clear boundaries around a critical moment in an activity, causing that moment to stand out from its temporal neighbors. Spotlighting is critical for development of episodic memories. Spotlighting is all about contrast. Spotlighting involves making sure that some piece of information stands out from the rest.
What do I mean by episodic memory? I find it easier to understand by contrasting it with procedural memory. Many autistic children excel at storing procedural memory, such as Pamela's recall of the day of the week given any date (future or past). Procedural memory "encodes details leading to specific goals" like a script or sequence of events. It activates a separate neural pathway from episodic memory, which selects meaningful details that fit into the big picture and encodes the emotional context with them as episodes falling into different categories. Episodic memory guides people in making decisions in future episodes.

Since I was not sure how well Pamela encoded the memory of being calm about Steve's early morning run and weird schedule, I exerted a special effort at lunch to spotlight those critical moments. First, I thought about the critical moments in which Pamela usually meltsdown but did not: before the run and leaving for the office without his briefcase. Then, I spotlighted those moments in our conversation and focused on the emotion she felt, "Dad went running, and you were so calm" (I smiled and gave her a thumbs up). "He went to an appointment and left for work late, but you were calm and brave." She beamed at me and said, "Not like the crazy lady." (Pamela thinks the Chinese lady melting down at the airport is hilarious.)

Since Steve's schedule vexes Pamela so much, I spotlighted it again later in the day and even filmed it for our consultant. My favorite moment is when I asked Pamela why she was so calm. Pamela started off with her knee-jerk response, "Because I s----," stopped herself, thought for a moment, and said, "Because Dad's going to work today."

Tonight, when Steve came home, he told Pamela his plans to run at 7:30 in the morning and leave for work by 8:30. Unlike yesterday morning, Pamela began to sputter, fuss, and cry; we stayed calm and neutral. This time her reaction was very mild: point five out of ten on the lady-at-the-airport scale. Steve left the room, and I stopped talking and comforted Pamela. I told her that I understood she was upset and rubbed her back. She said, "I'm crying." I replied, "That's okay. You're being brave."

At this point, Pamela must have associated her feeling with that of the lady at the airport. Suddenly, she started laughing and crying at the same time, alternating between thinking about that silly you-tube video and Steve's plans for tomorrow. She giggled so much her tears dried up. I'm not sure Charlotte Mason had this in mind when she talked about changing your thoughts, but it works for me!

Off-Topic Pictures of My Birds Taking Baths or Considering It:

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Pamela's Brain Waking Up OR Terrible Twos? Part III

The reason why I have had more time to blog than usual is that David, Pamela, and I all have head colds. While David and I are more resilient and can press through conjugating denominators with the sums including imaginary numbers or radicals and conjugating Latin verbs, Pamela cannot. On Monday, she bundled herself up in her red "towel robe" and spent a good part of her day in bed. And, notice that after all the excitement of opening Baby Alive's gift, she can now tolerate having Loonette and Molly by her side.

Pamela has been making wonderful strides lately and has also been seeking greater control over her dad. We are also seeing a couple of habits making me reflect on their greater meaning:
  • Pamela started this high-pitched screech on Monday (of last week), the painful day we decided to leave our church, making me wonder if my mood affected hers. The frequency of screeching has diminished since then.
  • If we do not respond to her stim or question fast enough, Pamela says in a high-pitched, whiny voice, "Answer me!" I am slowing down that moment, waiting for her to reference me, and then take action. Sometimes, I make a declarative, neutral comment: "I was thinking about what I was going to say and you did not give me enough time" or "I am sorry. I didn't hear you. What did you say?" If someone else didn't hear her, I tell the person Pamela is talking to them. If I was ignoring her stimming, I try to change the conversation.
  • When Pamela used to meltdown, they seemed "intrasubjective" because Pamela was reacting, not acting. Her emotions boiled over and spilled out, but she paid no attention to how they affected other people. One benefit of recording is mining an interaction frame by frame. I noticed in the video of the meltdown how Pamela's meltdowns are more intersubjective. Pamela covered her ear, closed her eyes, and screamed. She yelled at me for six seconds. Then, she balled her hand into a fist and pounded on her leg. Within one second, she stopped and assessed my reaction.

While many parents might be frustrated at this turn of events and regretting starting RDI, I am ECSTATIC! Kyra, another RDI mom, witnessed this same change in behavior in her son Fluffy and asked Dr. Gutstein about it. She wrote, "I was greatly relieved to hear him say Fluffy’s behavior is actually good news. Many ASD kids never go through this stage and they need it to develop true mindfulness. He says it’s the brain waking up."

Hurray, Pamela's brain is waking up! Her dynamic thinking is like that of a two-year-old after all of these years! Everything points to it: her interest in dolls and real babies, her ability to converse briefly converse with people unaided, why and how come questions, etc. That means she is hitting her "terrible twos" without all the excess baggage of limited language, potty training mastery, gross motor frustrations, bratty siblings, sibling rivalry, etc. Plus, Pamela has high level static skills we can tap into in helping her tap into this period of dysregulation, that is part of the development of every child.

I was reading Nicole Beurkens' blogpost on her typical daughter's development and dysregulation and it described Pamela's personality, "a very easy [child] – content to hang out with us and do whatever." When her daughter started mastering a new developmental milestone, she noticed her daughter getting mad about everything preventing her from fully exploiting her newfound mobility. Then, Nicole reflected that all of her boys went through this pattern of dysregulation prior to a developmental leap forward. She concluded, "Now I'm able to ride it out knowing that they all go through periods of time like this and it will end."

I cannot tell you how many parents of autistic children, especially homeschoolers who spend 24/7 with their kids, have noticed this exact same phenomenon. Many people I know completely agree with what Nicole observed because they have witnessed it time and time again:
Sometimes parents will call or email to say that their child is suddenly going through a very dysregulated time period – and when we look closer they have either just developed a new skill/way of thinking about things, or they are about to go through a developmental spurt. It seems to be the brain’s way of reorganizing itself - which can be a dysregulating process. Obviously not all dysregulation in children can be attributed to cognitive reorganization/developmental growth spurts, but it is something worth considering if you see it happening with your child. Considering it from this perspective allows us as parents to slow down and wait to see what happens without immediately worrying that our child has regressed or become permanently dysregulated. Sometimes in development we take a step back to take a few steps forward – good to remember for all kids!
Last week I received cards from friends, and they are great reminders to those of us mired in the terrible twos!

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Pamela's Brain Waking Up OR Terrible Twos? Part II

One reason why I enjoy watching birds is because every day unveils something different. Yesterday, I saw another first: robins drinking from our bird bath, as many as four at one time! Robins are everywhere, a welcome sign of spring, especially since the kids and I are down with head colds. Today, Steve and I saw bluejays for the first time ever, three eating seeds strewn on the brick walkway.

Many people with autism prefer things to stay the same, but Pamela had never expressed this to me until last Friday. I debated whether or not to post the video of her mild meltdown and decided against it. Have you seen fodder on You-Tube, like the Chinese woman who missed her flight?

Steve had face time with the dentist, who is half an hour north of us, before going to work, which is seventy-five minutes south of us. After he left the dentist, he realized he would not have time to make it to his office for an important phone call set for eleven o'clock. He decided to call from home and gave me a heads-up on his imminent arrival. We expected Pamela to have a meltdown, and she did not disappoint us! Steve's routine had been predictable for several days in a row, lulling Pamela into a false sense of schedule security.

I experimented with many strategies to keep her cool. Her meltdown was about a three on the Chinese-woman-at-the-airport scale. I told Pamela while she was playing GameBoy and watching television, hoping distraction would prevent meltdown. I answered her questions indirectly, hoping she would slow down and think. When she began to balk, I closed the distance between us to increase her opportunity for referencing, and I stayed calm in neutral when the fur started flying. I avoided matching her drama with my drama, remaining cool and collected in Mr. Roger's tone of voice. I even gave her a bump out of the outburst by sharing some good news: her Netflix DVD had arrived and you can see how quickly she recovered from round one.

Based on feedback from our consultant, I will be adding more strategies to my parenting tool bag. I plan to cut back on my talking even more and rely on nonverbal broadband channels for comfort, label her feelings in a neutral way, let her know I am there to help her work through those feelings, remind her of previous memories of overcoming angst,and bump her into a positively distracting activity.

After Steve arrived, she melted down in the kitchen, dining room, and bedroom, the intensity increasing to a five on the Chinese-woman-at-the-airport scale. She was upset off and on for about 20 minutes and did things like screech, plop herself on the floor, berate me verbally, and grit her teeth. We had a moment of clarity during one of the bedroom meltdowns. Pamela said, "I want the same! I don't like different." Pamela has NEVER been able to express WHY she gets upset so articulately. She gave me insight into what caused her distress, and I have been reflecting on that morsel it all weekend because what she said is highly puzzling!
  • Her anxiety over broken things is diminishing, so our lessons on uncertainty may not be the real mole we need to whack!
  • Our flexible schedule does not upset Pamela. We never wake up at the same time, go to bed at the same time, eat meals at the same time, do school at the same time. Our days flow. Some days I work with her first; other days David is first. Every day is different.
  • Pamela fixates on Steve's schedule, which has nothing to do with her schedule. He has always had unpredictable hours, but this obsession started last month.
I developed a hypothesis about Pamela's behavior. In January, Steve became more mindful about changing his communication style and working off the same plan as I do in reacting to her outbursts. I suspect Pamela, who perceives way more than she can express, recognizes Steve's change of parenting style. Instead of caving to her will, he now remains calm and neutral and sticks to his plan. She senses losing control of him, even though they still run errands together on weekends when he does indulge some of her more reasonable whims.

I tested this hypothesis in a couple of ways over the weekend. We recently decided to find a new church, so I broke the news to Pamela on Friday. This is a huge change for us since we attended our last church for almost four years. When we went to Wally World after Pamela calmed down, I told her about the new church on the way home. We decided to drive by it and take a peek. She was cool as a cucumber because the difference is not about Steve.

Saturday, Steve followed his weekend ritual: he made a to-do-list that would make Martha Stewart cry. He noticed Pamela bubbled watching him clean the stove, refrigerator, and counters with a special cleaner. She giggled as they headed off to Hardees to pick up breakfast because he was behaving like the same old dad. Later, she discovered his plan to go to Lowe's and asked to join him. Steve had run sevens miles in the morning and told her he needed a siesta before going. Pamela tried to bully him out of it. They were discussing it in the kitchen and Steve said, "See. I'm writing it on my list. 'Take a nap.'" Without missing a beat, Pamela grabbed his pen and scratched it off! Steve did take a catnap, and Pamela did wait patiently with some guiding from me before they left. Then, they went to Lowe's, and Pamela talked Steve into window shopping at Blockbusters on the way home. Before she went to bed, she brought Baby Alive to Steve and told him that her doll was going to watch television with him.

Clearly, Pamela loves bossing her daddy around and I do think controlling his schedule is another way to manipulate him. And that brings us to my theory on the terrible twos, which I will cover in my next post.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Pamela's Brain Waking Up OR Terrible Twos? Part I

Pamela has been doing some amazing things lately. Last Saturday, she did not really feel like watching birds with me, requiring me to be extra patient and encouraging in guiding her. Since all our men were out of town on a ski trip for Valentine's Day (which I never celebrate anyway because it reeks of commercialism), a friend, Pamela, and I attended The Whole Megillah. This Purim ballet set in Ancient Persia tells story of Esther through brilliant costumes with a contemporary dance twist. We bought wooden graggers for only three dollars for the dramatic climax at end of the program. Unfortunately, Pamela lasted through intermission after an hour of dance supported by minimal dialog and narration. Talk about broadband communication overload!

We are so glad to see Pamela becoming more assertive and interested in experience sharing. Sunday morning, she infused her gragger with new purpose: she wanted to sit where the gluten-free, casein-free dog was sitting. She whirled the noisemaker and said to Loa, "Wake up!" Then, Pamela grabbed her by the collar and hauled her off the chair. I have even seen Pamela try to carry the dog of Flubber in her arms like a baby. She has even mustered the courage to grab the leash of the brat dog (the Arwenator) and bring her to me for safe-keeping.

Canine aside, there are other neat developments. The other day Pamela asked me, "What is half past seven?" After I explained it meant 7:30, she quickly caught on as we verbally explored other half-pasts. When I use the N-word (no), she asks, "Why?" or "How come?"--which I have been waiting sixteen years to hear her say (as annoying as it is). She not only loves her babies, she now brakes for real babies in restaurants and at David's co-op class. Pamela tells me when she feels proud of herself, "I did it," and tells me exactly what she did. When I smother her with scaffolding, she announces "I'll do it myself!" like any huffy toddler. When the electric toothbrush ran out of power, Pamela squealed and I told her that all it needed was a good recharge. She danced and said, "Just like the computer!"

Last Sunday, she and I dined at the Chinese restaurant. Picking out food from the buffet gave her more practice with guiding me verbally and physically--this girl LOVES sushi! While we were seated, the waitress asked Pamela if she wanted more Coke. Pamela looked at her and said "No!" Later, the waitress came back again and asked the same thing. This time Pamela handed her the glass and said, "Get rid of it." The waitress put it on the table and tried to pour more. So, Pamela then said, "Get rid of it," and carefully used her palm to push it back to the waitress and shook her head. The waitress, who like Pamela seems to be learning English, finally realized what Pamela wanted and whisked away the glass. When the waitress came back to retrieve Pamela's plate, my reflexes were not fast enough to stop Pamela from licking it first . . . sigh.

What we are seeing is more evidence of intersubjectivity, or "the developmental process of linking mental states between people." Through RDI, Pamela moved past primary intersubjectivity, "the way that infants, in their first year of life relate directly to others through emotion sharing and coordinated movement" and into secondary intersubjectivity as described in My Baby Can Dance:
Secondary intersubjectivity, which begins to be observed towards the close of the first year, involves a "triangulating" relationship between two persons and an external stimulus. The experience of triangulation opens the door to understanding other's minds, relative thinking, and the development of a conscious self, as the young child experiences the distinction between their unique perceptual stance towards a stimulus and that of their partner.
She is becoming almost too intersubjective. I am sitting at the desk while I type this blog with my back to Pamela (on my left) and the television (on my right). I turn my head to see what Pamela is watching and she chides, "Stop looking!" I reply neutrally, "I'm just peeking!" After a minute, I repeat the head-turning and she responds more mildly. I will blog more about the consequences of greater intersubjectivity in my next post!

Friday, February 20, 2009

Broadband Communication

Pamela is near the end of Stage 2 of RDI, which means that Pamela is starting to enter her terrible two's in her dynamic thinking (and we are seeing signs of it, but that is fodder for another day). I know it sounds odd: a nineteen-year-old--who can perform all operations on decimals, read upper elementary level books, drives down the highway on Google Earth, and can tell you the day of the week you were born if given the date--is, in some ways, a toddler. I know it's trite, but it is what it is.

A recent article on gestures and vocabulary development in toddlers points out the importance of broadband communication for young children. (So, why do speech therapists sometimes ignore this vital component of language development, I ask?) Just as scientists have discovered in typical children, I am finding that nonverbal forms of communication seem to be preceding expanded phrases and sentences for Pamela:
Don't just talk to your toddler--gesture, too. Pointing, waving bye-bye and other natural gestures seem to boost a budding vocabulary. Scientists found those tots who could convey more meaning with gestures at age 14 months went on to have a richer vocabulary as they prepared to start kindergarten. And intriguingly, whether a family is poor or middle class plays a role, the researchers report Friday.
Through co-op classes, Pamela learned many ASL signs, but she never connected it to real life as a form of communication. I had hoped it would be the key for her, but it was not. She thought of signs as fun but because she was not actively reading and using broadband communication. It was a game to her, much like finger-spelling was a game to Helen Keller before the water pump moment. The study explained,
This is not baby sign-language; parents weren't formally training their tots. Instead, they used everyday gestures to point something out or illustrate a concept. A child points to a dog and mom says, "Yes, that's a dog." Or dad flaps his arms to mimic flying. Or pointing illustrates less concrete concepts like "up" or "down" or "big."
Today, I filmed Pamela while we shopped at Wally World. The objective was to allow Pamela to guide and direct me more both verbally and physically. I act like a bit of a blockhead, doing and saying the wrong thing, to give Pamela the chance to give me more specific feedback. I look the wrong way and stumble for words. I say the wrong place or thing, or I accidentally skip an aisle. If she could, Pamela would probably say "Over there" for ever! My cluelessness requires her to be more specific and explicit. Notice how well she uses gestures, facial expressions, and words!

Thursday, February 19, 2009

GBBC Day Two

Pamela and I spent another half hour counting birds on Saturday but bagged it Sunday and Monday (I was emotionally spent due other things going on in life). I issued Pamela the certificate above for spending an hour of birdwatching. I thought you might be interested in seeing the sheets we used to scaffold her identifying birds:

Saturday's highlight for me was photographing the tufted titmouse. Titmice, like chickadees, usually snatch sunflower seeds from the feeder in a hit-and-run and fly to a hiding spot in the tree to open it and eat the nugget. I find them hard to shoot for that reason. These are not the greatest pictures, but they leave no doubt that we have at least one titmouse visiting the feeder. They are so cute with their black button eyes and fan tails.

As of Saturday, ours were the only two observations from our town. I just checked the results submitted as of today, and I am delighted to know many other bird watchers in my town posted what they saw, too!

Here is what we reported last Friday:
1 Mourning Dove
1 Carolina Wren
1 American Robin
5 Chipping Sparrows
2 Northern Cardinals
2 Common Grackles
2 House Finches
1 American Goldfinches15 Total

Here is what we reported last Saturday:
1 Carolina Chickadee
1 Tufted Titmouse
1 Carolina Wren
1 Northern Mockingbird
7 Chipping Sparrows
1 Northern Cardinal
3 House Finches15 Total

Here are two videos of us watching the birds real-time and reviewing pictures after the count:

Yesterday, I took a cool picture. During the count over the weekend, I noticed that my neighbor's camellias had visitors, but I did not get a good shot of them. I snapped one of an American goldfinch hanging out in these gorgeous pink flowers. God made blooming flowers and colorful, melodious birds to cheer our hearts even in the dead of winter.

And as I stood, and cast aside mine eye,
I was ware of the fairest medlar tree
That ever yet in all my life I seye,
As full of blossoms as it mighte be;
Therein a goldfinch leaping prettily
From bough to bough; and as him list he eat
Here and there of the buds and flowers sweet.
By Geoffrey Chaucer

Friday, February 13, 2009

Great Backyard Bird Count 2009 Day One

One of the benefits of bird watching is getting outdoors and breathing the fresh air. This post may seem odd to you because we are--gasp, INDOORS--studying pictures I took of birds during my count this morning and videos I recorded. You can breathe a sigh of relief because Pamela spends a good part of her day outdoors, whether or not she is identifying birds. Here she is playing in the sand at red beach.

To get in the spirit of the bird count and knock out more work on sharing perspectives, Pamela and I practiced identifying birds on Wednesday. I placed pictures of birds indoors and outdoors, and she helped me find them in the order I had written on my list. I hoped to see how Pamela directs me physically and verbally, and she was fabulous. I, on the other hand, need to improve on my "match plus one" technique (repeat what she says and add something simple to it). I scaffolded her too much with my "I can't see it" and will back off in the next lesson. What I found interesting is how well she compensates for her aphasia by coming up with phrases and words that get the point across, even if her choices are not perfectly clear (for example, she said bench instead of column). A couple of times, Pamela knew there was a better word and corrected herself almost immediately, changing man to woman, shed to window and chair to swing.

Last weekend, I outlined my plan for scaffolding birdwatching and I added two things to it. I decided to review pictures I took on the computer and to write future, present, and past experience stories a la the association method (fodder for a later post). The most exciting moment for me was taking a picture of the Carolina wren for the first time ever!

The beauty of being able to study pictures of the birds I recorded on the video is helping Pamela differentiate little brown blobs. I try to take as many pictures as possible--full zoom on busy birds practically guarantee blurry shots. The first step is telling the sparrows and the finches apart; the second is figuring out which sparrow and which finch. With the computer, I can zoom in on specific features until the identification is obvious. From top to bottom are a chipping sparrow, a female house finch, and a male house finch. By the by, a flock of chipping sparrows and Mr. and Mrs. House Finch dine at our feeder regularly.

Meet Our Fluffy Friends

Video of Pamela and I Studying Pictures

Video of Our Fluffy Friends

Video of Pamela and I Studying the Video

Handling Anxiety over a Possibly Scratched Disk

I just checked the 2009 statistics for South Carolina. As of 20:36, our household was the only list submitted for our neck of the woods . . .

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Snoopy Dancing for Pamela

While we are working on a new objective, we have not closed the book on helping Pamela with her anxieties. We can add another objective to our plate because the whole family is mindful of how to handle moments of anxiety. We have a game plan for current issues, and, if any new ones crop up, we have an idea of what to do. Guiding her through uncertainty (the root cause of most of her worries) is part of our parenting style (when we are not grumpy or exhausted--hey, we are only human). Sunday was a good example.

David went to the early service. He got home just as we were leaving for the late service (our church is around the block, so we walk). Steve specifically told him to feed the dogs and let the hyper dog out of the kennel. When we got home, we planned to pick up David and drive to a restaurant for lunch. David had not done as requested, and I could hear Steve scolding him (which David deserved). I knew Pamela would feed off of that, so we walked to the front yard and sat on the brickwork. She knew David was in trouble, but she saw me acting calm and neutral so she stayed cool. Then, David walks over to us in a huff and vented. I told him that it was between him and Dad, and my job is keeping Pamela neutral. If he had to vent, I told him to find another spot. If I had not been a buffer, Pamela would have had moments of anxiety where she grits her teeth. I prevented it by showing her that I was going to sit there with her and enjoy the glorious sunshine!

We drove to the restaurant for lunch. David and Steve did their usual fast-paced repartee in the car. I could tell Pamela was growing frustrated because she could not follow them nor keep up. Her frustration was beginning to build into anxiety. I stopped the banter and reminded them that Pamela could not keep up. Then, I repeated Pamela's question for Steve so he could answer it and help her feel competent and part of the conversation.

After our meal, we walked by a table with a family and a baby seated in the high chair. While we were putting the trash and trays away, Pamela stopped and walked up to the baby with very friendly overtones. We did not know the family so we moved on and I said, "Do you like babies?" Pamela answered, "Yes."

Pamela does not go to church events very often because we hope she will want to go because she feels competent. Sunday night, she wanted to go to a church spaghetti dinner (and we brought her gluten-free noodles and sauce, of course). She sat at the table, while we headed to the food line, where we needed to snag a plate and drink for her.

Someone in our Sunday school class walked up to Pamela and greeted her. She was wearing a pretty, shiny ring. Pamela grabbed and massaged her hand and looked at the ring mesmerized. The lady said, "Pamela, do you like my ring?" Pamela looked her in the face and said, "Yes." Then, the lady said, "I like your hair. Who cut it?" Pamela didn't quite get the question, but she did answer with, "Me!" So, the lady said, "Did someone cut your hair for you?" Pamela again confused, said, "Yes, me!" What impressed the lady the most was how Pamela looked her in the face while they talked! While the lady was relating this anecdote story to us, her daughter walked over to the table to give Pamela her plate and drink. Pamela looked up at the daughter and said, "Thank you." They were both very amazed at how well Pamela engaged them without direct prompting.

While we ate, Steve was talking to a fellow car buff. They talked about cars, selling toilets, and washing the siding. Pamela had two issues: a slight case of jealous and trigger words. Whenever she would start to over react, I would explain the whole story: "Oh, Bob just moved into his new house." Steve was able to converse in peace while I kept Pamela regulated!

Yesterday, Pamela did a fabulous job in reacting to visual and auditory barriers I put in her way. She seems to know when I am not able to see and hear what she perceives. She overcame every challenge I gave her. Instead of getting frustrated at her mother, who seemed to be acting like a blockhead, Pamela was very playful and laughed. She required hardly any scaffolding (only for removing the head phones). The most exciting moment was when she automatically knew that she had to move to see the astronaut that I built out of blocks. I have saved those Discovery Toys blocks for ten years and I am so glad I did! They are quite awesome for a physical barrier that can also function as showing two different perspectives.

Pamela clearly has a higher level of understanding than I thought. I suspect that her aphasia (which has prolonged her confusion with pronouns) has masked her true abilities. We still have to demonstrate a fuller understanding for her to master this objective. I think you will enjoy watching her shine. I had a hard time repressing my urge to do an endzone dance during this recording.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Borat's Cousin

Although it is highly original, I can't stand the humor of Borat, aka Sasha Baron-Cohen. I find him too cruel, crass, and crude for my money. Anyway, until recently, I did not realize that Borat's cousin is the very famous researcher in the field of autism, Simon Baron-Cohen. Does anyone know if Dr. Stanley Greenspan, developer of Floortime (a development) and former Fed chairman Alan Greenspan are really brothers, or is that another urban myth?

Simon Baron-Cohen, director of the Autism Research Centre (which is not misspelled), is working on projects like empathy and mindblindness. He has extensively researched a core cognitive feature of autism: challenges with theory of mind,
By theory of mind we mean being able to infer the full range of mental states (beliefs, desires, intentions, imagination, emotions, etc.) that cause action. In brief, having a theory of mind is to be able to reflect on the contents of one’s own and other’s minds.
We had our own little version of Baron-Cohen's classic Sally-Anne "False Belief" test last Friday while delivering meals on wheels. Every time, the food set up is slightly different. Today, one meal included a hot lunch, three bags of crackers, milk, and salad. Pamela was in charge of handing me the latter three items as usual. Because she manned the cooler, she knew the meal included both milk and salad. David and I did not know about the salad, so we only asked for milk. Pamela must have thought, "They know about the salad because I know about it." So, she never volunteered the fact that we were forgetting the salad. With only six meals left to deliver, Pamela handed me both milk and salad. So, we ended up backtracking to make sure all of the clients got their allotment of greens!

Experts in the field of autism are addressing theory of mind in different ways. Nearly everyone mindreads unconsciously (no, I do not mean psychic powers or paranormal states). We interpret, predict, and participate in social behavior and communication through theory of mind: reading facial expressions and body language to determine the mental states of other people. Clearly, the first step children with autism must learn is recognizing facial expressions, and Simon Baron-Cohen developed two DVDs to teach this (Transporters for Thomas the Train fans and Mind Reading for mature audiences). I agree with Baron-Cohen when he claimed that children can improve this social skill through practice, but I prefer the non-technological route. Like our kids already get enough screen time, eh?

I also agree with him that recognizing emotions may not be enough to transform behavior. Without a guide, children with autism may not understand how to use this greater understanding of emotions in real life. Through RDI, we adopted the approach of teaching this skill through daily lifestyle activities in the real world. We have had many, many situations in which we remained nonverbal and Pamela made decisions about what to do based upon our facial expressions. Now, we are taking baby steps in theory of mind by working on sharing perspectives.

Our first step focuses on concrete things: physical barriers that prevent she and I from perceiving the same thing. I wanted to build a positive episodice memory in this uncharted territory, so I made it very easy and obvious. In my first lesson with Pamela, I covered my face (blanket, poncho, cap, blindfold) and let her know there was a problem without direct prompts: "uh-oh," "I'm blind," and "I can't see." Pamela is very playful person, and I knew she would like it. I tried to slow down my actions at the critical moment of discovery. So, I caught her attention and slowly covered my vision. Pamela laughed and then would remove whatever it was. After she showed me she understood the need to address the problem physically, I added more challenges and she met them all with a little bit of scaffolding!

Yesterday, at Walmart, I found opportunities to work on this objective. Pamela was looking at a TV guide from the magazine stash near a closed checkout aisle. I stood perpendicular to her and stared at boxes of turtle chocolates. Then, I used a lot of declarative language. "Mmmmm . . . I see chocolates . . . Mmmmm, they look so good." She was so absorbed in the TV guide that it was pointless. Later, we were in the book section. I was again perpendicular to her so I opened my eyes wide, gasped, and said, "A spider!" She didn't see any arachnids, so she walked in my direction to check out the books on spiders. We were back to back in the electronics. She was studying the digital converter box, while I was looking at computer games. I had my back to what she was seeing. She wanted me to look and did lots of pointing and verbalizing, and I responded with, "I don't see it. I see games." I had to scaffold her by moving closer to her and putting her hands on my face. Then, she turned me in the right direction.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Rest in Peace, Sweet Lily!

When I pulled off the cover of the bird cage on Friday, I noticed that Lily our sweet parakeet was dead. I knew Pamela would need scaffolding on handling the death of a beloved pet, so I left the towel on the cage all day to avoid attracting her attention. Steve left work early and picked up a new parakeet for us. Pamela decided to take a bath, so I quietly took care of Lily and cleaned out the cage (yes, we gave her a Christian burial and not a royal flush). Steve had just arrived when Pamela noticed that the cage was in pieces, and Lily was nowhere to be seen. I decided to film our conversation in case I needed to learn how to better handle the death of a pet.

Pamela began asking me, "Where's the bird?" I very calmly and quietly eased into the news by telling her about the new bird first. She was mildly upset, but we spared her the kind of uncertainty that drives her over the edge. Because we already had a new bird, I think it lessened her anxiety. She was very interested in assisting Steve in moving the new bird into the cage. Steve had no idea how to do it and did a great job of remaining calm and neutral. I scaffolded Pamela in finding little roles to help him out. We used lots of declaratives and nonverbals and limited our prompts and commands as much as we could as we moved the new bird. Pamela named him Pat. We have no idea why she picked that name!

And, here's Pat . . . (Patrick if you are being formal).

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Scaffolding Great Backyard Bird Count for You and Your Kids

Hear ye, hear ye, all ye RDI families! Believe it or not, bird watching can be a great activity for framing RDI objectives or just plain family fun! You do not have to be an expert in birds to get started. In fact, part of the joy of birdwatching is not knowing much at all and making discoveries for yourself! You do not have to live near a nature center to see our feathered friends (yes, in time, you will grow to think of them as friends). I live right in the middle of a rural town with two gas stations, a storage facility, two stores, a former dialysis center, a church with several buildings, and four houses on my busy block!

You do not need a web camera or special equipment. This battered, old, taped-up camera (with the zoom set to the highest level, without flash, pictures take through my sometimes clean kitchen window) has produced the bird pictures on my blog! Then, I crop, resize, or adjust the color as needed. When I was busy trying to catch the painted bunting in action a few weeks back, I put the video camera on the back porch and let it rip for thirty minutes!

Become a Good Guide
To scaffold your children in watching birds, you need to become a good guide and that means getting to know your birds. When I first started homeschooling in the dark ages (1995), I could recognize obvious birds in my yard, but not much more than robin, cardinal, blue jay, and crows. When we moved to a house in Colorado with bird feeders and bird boxes, I caught the bird-watching bug. I bought a bird book and began watching them from my kitchen window through some binoculars. Very gradually, I began to recognize them based on several factors. I keep on hand a local bird book and a national field guide for traveling.

The first thing you need to do is attract birds by supplying food and water in a place you can view from a window. We have a bird bath, a seed feeder, a suet feeder, and a nectar feeder for hummingbirds in Spring. Great daily lifestyle activities are filling the bath with clean water and making sure all feeders are full. You can either buy feeders (an outing with potential for framing objectives) or make your own. You can figure out what birds you may attract this time of year by plugging your town into the 2008 Great Backyard Bird Count results. You and your child can talk about what kind of birds you would like to feed and choose a feeder type, bird food, and feeder placement based upon that--all great venues for problem solving and dynamic thinking.

Then, the fun begins . . . watching and identifying birds. I started off by getting the know the boldest and most frequent visitors to our feeders. Between bird books and online guides, you have a wealth of information available. The first thing most people notice about birds is their appearance. Talking about how a bird looks is a great opportunity for making declarative comments and learning new vocabulary words. The other day, I identified a tufted titmouse for the first time. It came and went so fast I had no time to share it with Pamela, but I did take a blurry picture! That way we can slow down the action, zoom in on any details after we transfer it to the computer, and take our time in making comments, "the chest is creamy and fluffy," "the bird has a blue crown of feathers that look like a Mohawk," "its black eyes look like buttons," and "I see a little bit of rust colored feathers at the left and right edges of its chest." You can classify many birds based on appearance only! Some birds are tricky to identify (an example from earlier in the week was distinguishing between the Carolina wren which has a solid chest and the brown thrasher which has a speckled chest) and may require much more problem solving over several viewings to figure out.

Become a Dynamic Thinker
Bird watching requires dynamic thinking because many elements can help you identify birds. You can guide your child in exploring a host of characteristics of birds in your backyard:

Behavior - When birds are hard to distinguish (especially little brown blobs), what they do reveals much. For example, suppose you are trying to sort out a female house finch from a song sparrow. Song sparrows forage on the ground, while house finches forage in trees, on the ground, and feeders.

Size - By comparing sizes of birds feeding at the same type, you can estimate the size of the bird you are trying to identify.

Location - Some birds live in your area year round, while others migrate in your area during a certain seasons. You may only see other birds while they migrate. Not only that, some birds are not native to your area! Researching online guides tells me that house finches live here all year long, but purple finches are here only for the winter. I can rule out the Cassin's finch, gray-crowned rosy finch and black-rosy finch because they do not live in the Carolinas.

Food - While a way to reach a bird's heart is through its stomach, each bird species is very particular about seeds. If you see a little brown blob feeding on thistle seed (nyler seeds), your friend is most likely a female finch, not a sparrow, which prefers sunflower, corn, and millet seeds.

Movement - I knew where to point my camera because I spotted quick, flighty flitting in the trees. Birds tend to move in a snappy way different from the gentle sway of the wind blowing leaves in the trees. Another fun activity is to load pictures on the computer, zoom in carefully, and find birds hiding in the branches and leaves. Here are two shots I found of an American goldfinch wearing its winter colors.

Great Backyard Bird Count
Last year, Pamela made some entries in her nature notebook. This year, I would like her to learn to identify and count the birds with me. Here are my plans for scaffolding Pamela in making more careful observations for the Great Backyard Bird Count this year:

Photos of the Usual Suspects - I have a very good idea of what birds to expect this year, so I plan to make up and print some pages with pictures of all potential candidates and their names.

Checklist - I will tailor the checklist in Excel of the birds we expect with all the information GBBC requires.

Video - I plan to film the area where I usually watch birds and do my count from the kitchen window on my own. That way I can be very accurate and know how to guide Pamela when watching the video. Then, I will put the handicam disk in my computer where we can zoom in for identification and pause for counting. If we capture something cool on video, we can submit it to GBBC and blog it, of course!

Clock - I hope to teach Pamela to use clock directions to point out a bird in a tree. Imagine the tree's crown as the face of a clock: twelve o'clock would be the tip-most top of the tree, while six o'clock would be the lowest point in the crown. That means nine o'clock is the leftmost edge and three o'clock the right most.

Input - Pamela is very adept at the computer. She can help me input the data and make sure we didn't make any mistakes before we send it.

Other Worthy Projects for Higher Level Thinking
Nest Watch
Celebrate Urban Birds
Feeder Watch
Bird Sleuth

Friday, February 06, 2009

What to Do When You Don't Have $20,000 for a Week of Therapy?

Figuring out how to guide children with autism in their thinking is never easy. The Bilson family found their daughter had developed the habit of tantrums whenever she did not get her way. Figuring out how to set limits to avoid letting an autistic child dominate a family is not easy. Watching the "before" video of their daughter Marissa reminded me of how Helen Keller controlled her family before Annie Sullivan arrived on the scene. What I find most fascinating about this video is how closely Marissa pays attention to how people react to her screaming to see if they are ready to cave to her whims. I wonder if Pamela never developed that habit because she was not as adept at referencing our reactions.

The Bilson family received five days of counseling, worth $20,000, from an ABA therapist. Because CNN filmed and aired this story, the service provider of the therapy waived the fees. So, what do the rest of us do?

In our case, we are finding that RDI helps us with Pamela's toughest issue, anxiety, a big problem for many people with autism. Dr. Temple Grandin, a well-respected expert on autism (who also happens to have autism), said that in her late twenties, "Anxiety and panic attacks got worse and worse. It was like a constant state of stage fright." Low-dose antidepressants have kept her anxiety at bay ever since. However, she recommends other alternatives like weighted blankets and other sensory integration equipment for younger children. When Pamela was young, we found sensory integration techniques critical in helping keep her from melting down.

Our approach is to teach Pamela to reference us when she is anxious, which I have chronicled all last month. Everyone in the family, including her brother David, is learning how to remain calm and neutral because it helps Pamela calm down. Rather than giving Pamela treats for becoming regulated, we focus on guiding her thinking about how people are feeling. If we are not panicking, then there is no reason for her to panic. Moods can be highly contagious, and we have noticed a pattern. If one of us wakes up on the wrong side of the bed, Pamela catches that mood and becomes out-of-sorts. If one of us gets upset because something is not going our way, Pamela becomes more susceptible to screaming when something does not go her way. We are all becoming more mindful of how we pass around moods like cold germs. To recap our efforts, I started off explaining resiliency in a messy world, handling Pamela's trigger words, whacking one uncertainty at a time, and practicing what if scenarios.

We are starting to see progress on the uncertainty front. For example, with trigger words, last week, I still had to warn her in advance that I was going to say the upsetting words. Here is an example of how she reacted when I forgot! My bad!

This week I noticed I no longer needed to give her warnings about saying trigger words. Pamela is starting to stay calm when she sees I am calm. In fact, she acts downright playful here!

However, I still have to limit the number of trigger words and treat lightly around topics that create major anxieties for Pamela (such as the radio station going silent for thirty minutes). Here I go from selling the dogs to being sick to the broken radio.

Earlier in the month, Pamela had started to get anxious whenever Steve ran before work because sometimes he left the house later than usual. She was even more bothered when he worked from home (which he does from time to time). While she has not conquered this new anxiety, she is improving.

Yesterday morning, Steve caught Pamela completely surprised. He left early (like 6:15 AM) to go to an early morning Rotary Meeting (a new gig of his). It was held about 20 minutes from home. Steve decided to return home and switch to the car that consumes less gas since the office is another hour from the location of the meeting. He did not warn either Pamela or I in advance. The worst thing you can do is surprise her like that! As soon as I saw him in the driveway, I got the camera ready and, when he came him, I let him know I would film. Pamela was startled but Steve handled it very well. He reassured her about his intentions to go to work and plans to switch cars first.

We still have a long way to go in whacking the anxiety moles, but now the entire family has a game plan and we are mindful of how we can help Pamela overcome her anxieties and how our negative moods influence her mood. Even better, it doesn't cost us $20,000!

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Another Snowy Bird Day

One day with snow flurries is very rare for our part of the country. Two days in two weeks are downright shocking! Yesterday was another snowy bird day for us. It seems like the colder the weather, the more we see the birds. It is the only consolation for frigid weather that I can imagine in my chill-despising birdbrain! Pamela noticed the flurries, bundled outside, and enjoyed the super-light flakes. She put her hand on the frozen bird bath, too. The only way I could capture the snow on film was with the backdrop of our possibly one-hundred-year-old camellia bush (yes, that is a bush).

We saw the usual suspects but I was able to capture mourning dove on the frozen bird bath (before I melted the ice with hot water) along with a dashing chipping sparrow and two house finches at the feeder. Later, I got a nice shot of Mr. and Mrs. Dove on the ground. I will never say I like the cold! But, I am starting to appreciate it more!

Later, I shot some bold chipping sparrows at the bath and I love the one in flight in this shot:

The brown thrasher is a very shy bird. Every time I sneak to the kitchen door with a camera it flies off. I have tried to take pictures from inside the house with very little luck until today. These are the best pictures I could take, and, in them, you can see the curved beak, the fat speckled chest, and the long, thin tail.

Here are the usual suspects (a goldfinch with its head in the feeder and Mr. and Mrs. Cardinal):