Saturday, March 31, 2012

Amazing Grace

I rarely rant, but a friend sent me a link that has forced me to get this off my chest.

No! I will not expose the family who created a behavior chart "sanitized" by Bible verses with a link. Since people who read my blog understand the importance of relationships, you will understand even if the family in question may not. Ironically, the post that, er, inspired this rant has no comments. Yes, ZERO! You can literally hear the crickets chirping in the background of that one.

The couple struggles with complete disrespect (a youngster yelling mean things to Mom and Pop or slamming things hard enough to break them). They consulted an autism therapist and a popular book by a Christian psychologist to develop the contract the whole family signed. Sigh. The parents gave it the Christian seal of approval: they prayed, developed rules, and backed each rule up with Bible verses. Each rule has a consequence which the couple administers with absolute consistency. After the consequence, Mom and Dad send an unruly child to the bedroom until calm. Then, they kiss, make up, and pray together.

One of their rules is "Respect All Adults." I believe giving a child with autism such a black-and-white rule may be harmful in the long run. Because social behavior is so complicated, people with autism tend to boilerplate socialization into a system of elaborate rules. Trying to reduce social skills to rules is what gets them into trouble because social behavior depends upon context and the unique characteristics of people interacting together. What is acceptable at one time and group is intolerable at another.

Moreover, all adults are not worthy of respect. Jose Salinas, a fourth grader with cerebral palsy, often came home from school sick but told his mother he had a "good day" when asked. The parents knew something wasn't right. "We knew he hated going to school. We tried every medical test we could think of, but we never could find anything wrong." His classmate tipped her off to what was happening at school. His mother caught on audio tape a teacher and teacher's aide verbally mistreating her son. The recordings made over three days document lack of one-on-one instructions, harsh verbal commands, insults, etc. The mother noted that her son "received about 20 minutes of actual instruction and spent almost the entire day sitting in silence with no one speaking to him."

The two educators are on administrative leave until the school board meets on April 9. Jose hasn't been sick lately, and his classmates have noticed that Jose is "smiling all the time, talking all the time, nothing but happy." Although some segments of tape disturbed the Superintendent of the school district, he also noted that the two educators (now on paid administrative leave) "could have been attempting to reinforce the therapist’s treatment plan [for drooling]." Just because a child has a treatment plan and a goal does not make the situation any less wrong.

Even if we homeschool and attempt to place our children out of harm's way, we cannot protect them from the ignorant, or worse people with evil intentions. What about ill-informed neighbors making life for our kids difficult? What about restaurant employees who look down on them for acting oddly? What about the stranger at the store who tells you that all your kid needs is a good spanking in the middle of a meltdown? What about the visiting couple sitting behind you in church nudging each other because your kid stood up and walked up to the deacon with the offering plate? Adults like that warrant keeping a safe distance, but not respect. What about the pedophiles who seek positions of trust such as schools, churches, scout troops, etc. to target vulnerable children?

At times, when Pamela is truly upset and unable to explain herself, she will have a fit or say something disrespectful. The other day, Pamela was adamant about staying longer at watercolor class because she wanted to finish the landscape. When she realized I wasn't caving, she went to her teacher, who is a parent of an autistic child, too. Calming her down required leaving the room, sitting on her favorite couch, breathing deeply, and counting quietly. We compromised: I promised her to finish the painting over the weekend. Later, in a calm moment, I asked her why she was so upset. Pamela told me she wanted to start something new next week: a basket of Easter eggs.

Pamela does respect me. She watches what I do during the day and helps out. We own a hybrid car, and I keep the key in the cup holder. When I am ordering drinks, she will move the key and hold it. I never have to ask her. I never taught her that, either. She enjoys cleaning up trash left in the car by her brother and helps me bring groceries into the house. Last month, I noticed how Pamela was sorting books when we finished reading them. She would put the books for the next day on the fireplace mantel, a holding spot until the daily box was empty. She would put books finished for the week on my computer desk because I prepare next week's plan in the evenings. She would put books we didn't need for a day or two in the storage box. One day, I casually told Pamela, "I think you are ready to set up the daily box." Since that day, I have not had to set up the box!

Nobody is perfect. Pamela loses her cool sometimes, and so do I. We both respect each other even though there are times when we completely disagree. Rather than playing on one another's emotions, we try to seek common ground and come to an understanding that works for both of us. Even when she was a young child, I watched her behavior carefully and respected her unique needs as a person with autism. Rather than insisting she ride elevators by brute force, I saw it as an opportunity to get some exercise by taking the stairs. In time, she conquered her fears on her own terms, which enabled her to conquer other fears.

Oh, and my Bible verse for that is:
Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. "Honor your father and mother"—which is the first commandment with a promise—"so that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth." Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord. Ephesians 6:1-4
Isn't it funny how "Children, obey your parents" comes to our mind immediately while "Do not exasperate your children" is lost in the cricketsphere?

This family has issues at meals. Children leave too soon or bring toys to the table. They do not find the experience worthy of thanks. This couple homeschools, and I will let all you non-homeschoolers in on a little secret. We spend a lot of time together. Probably too much time! We don't need meals to be the touchstone around which relationships are formed. For me, mealtime is my chance to read a book or catch up on Bible study. I'm quite sure my kids need a break from me, too. So, there you know our dirty little secret. We do not spend meals having our kumbaya moments. It would be overkill for us.

Again, the well-intentioned parents have consequences for leaving the table or bring toys to the table plus a Bible verse for good measure, "Oh, give thanks to the LORD, for He is good! For His mercy endures forever" (Psalm 107:1). And, again, I see irony in this verse: we tend to remember the command (give thanks to God) but not God's nature. So, what is mercy? Well, Merriam-Webster says, "Compassion or forbearance shown especially to an offender or to one subject to one's power" and "a blessing that is an act of divine favor or compassion." It is God's nature to treat us with love, kindness, and grace even though we have not earned it.

I like the third definition of mercy even more, "compassionate treatment of those in distress." Sometimes, what looks like inappropriate behavior communicates a feeling of distress the child cannot put into words. In the case of Jose Salinas, he came home sick all the time. He didn't want to go to school. Setting up a behavior chart for Jose would have been like giving morphine to someone with a broken arm. It fails to get to the heart of the matter: in his case, verbal abuse. His mother saw his distress, investigated into possible causes, and dealt with the real problem.

I wonder if the family with meal troubles has tried looking beyond the behavior to see what it communicates. Do the children have short attention spans? How long is their attention span? Is it possible for them to sit through a whole meal? Would they do better grazing healthy foods during the day? Do they need a fidget toy to stay on task? Are they having problems digesting food and need to be on a special diet (and picky eating is often a symptom of gut issues)? Does something about the meal frazzle them, requiring a calming toy? Our kids have quite sensitive hearing and everything from the dishwasher running to flickering bulbs to stomachs growling to utensils scraping the plates might be bothersome. Kitchens are full of other stimuli: rays of light bouncing of various surfaces, different types of light, strong smells, etc. Perhaps, they find it hard to feel thankful about such a tortuous experience as eating a meal.

Oh, and my Bible verse for that is:
In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. Romans 8:26
While we are human and are prone to mistakes, we can follow the model the Holy Spirit, who is the source of compassion ("But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control" Galatians 5:22-23). We can help our children in their weakness. We can try to search their hearts and find out what is really going on before we start guiding their behavior.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

What a Typical Morning Looks like around Here

As hard as I try to communicate the essence of what a Mason style of learning looks like for a person with autism, words cannot capture all the little moments that happen. The moments in which Pamela squeals during our Spanish lesson because the story is about firemen putting out a fire: "¡Fuego! ¡Fuego! Los bomberos vienin." The joy of singing "La Granja" at the top of our lungs. Or the fear that the runaway slave is about to be caught. The bittersweet moment when a book ends.

ChildLightUSA has come up with a way to provide such a vision at this year's conference. In addition to the wide and varied topics covered at the conference June 6-9, 2012, CLUSA is hosting a pre-conference with two immersion groups on Wednesday, June 6 (which requires an additional registration cost). Since this is a "trial balloon" of this idea, CLUSA will offer two choices this year. My friend, Nancy Kelly, mom of many and the heart behind several Mason initiatives in Minnesota, will be leading one immersion group illustrating how to handle multiple ages in a homeschool or co-operative setting. If you would like to know more about Nancy, check out her blog Sage Parnassus. I am leading another immersion for special needs children which will also illustrate how a Mason homeschool might look for upper elementary age students.

The sooner you register for the conference, the less expensive it will be. You can also save by registering with friends (groups of three or more get a discount of $10 per person). Have your registration postmarked by April 15 for the best deal.

I have attended all of the conference but the first. I enjoy going every year because I get to meet so many dear friends face-to-face. When I had no local Charlotte Mason support group, it was the only time of year where I connect with kindred spirits. This conference is unlike any conference you will attend. It is more than the nuts and bolts of teaching. It is about living: the morning begins with matins. The evening ends with inspirational experiences (the fine arts) and small group conversations about a wide variety of topics. We spend Friday evening at a nature park.

This year, CLUSA is highlighting some wonderful speakers in their wide and varied plenaries. Makoto Fujimura, the illuminator of the 400th Anniversary of the King James Bible and author of Refractions, will be speaking. We also have some of the best minds on Mason speaking: Deani and Meghan Van Pelt, Art Middlekauf, and Margaret Coombs who has turned up some fascinating tidbits about Charlotte Mason in her biographical research.

Monday, March 19, 2012

People Who "Get" It

Every year, we try to hit the local Revolutionary War Encampment that happens the last weekend in February. One year, Pamela made a corn-husk doll. Last year, Steve joined us and we had a blast. As always, we met some wonderful people and learned a lot. Last year, I checked out the evening lantern walk and determined that Pamela would love it. We didn't go this year because the weather was so awful. The daytime encampment has twenty different stations, and every year we focus on something new.
Swinging is good for Pamela's vestibular system and makes her feel calm and happy. Before we headed over, Pamela put herself into a great mood. When she was young, stimulating the vestibular system in the inner ear kept her regulated.

One thing we did differently was the book of centuries. Pamela recorded two things that impressed her: the firing of the blunderbuss and the stocks. She refused to get into the stocks herself, even after I volunteered myself for it.

Pamela enjoyed trying out the butter churn, and she definitely had visions of Mary and Laura Ingalls churning butter in one of her favorite books of all time, Little House in the Big Woods. The butter churn was at a station guided by Peggy, who had a soft, deliberate, gentle way of speaking. She caught on right away to talk even more slowly and limit her language with Pamela. At first, Pamela wanted to flit from one thing to another: the churn, a table set with food, pewter, and wooden plates, naturally-dyed yarn, jars of ingredients to make the dye, and dyed material left to hang and dry. Pamela wanted to sit, so I gave her some cotton to hold, reminding her of the slavery books we are reading right now.

After Pamela stood up, Peggy slowly talked to her about the beautiful indigo scarf. She bought the silk scarf at a thrift store and dyed it with indigo. She asked Pamela if she would like to wear it and Pamela agreed. Before we left, Pamela gave Peggy a hug and I'm not sure Peggy realized how rarely Pamela hugs a total stranger.

Pamela always stops at this trading post. She loves feeling the animal fur and exploring the trinkets and junk. This year, the claws left on some of the fur caught her eye!

Sometimes all that is needed is a little bit of patience. We found a huge crowd at the quilter's tent, so Pamela sat on a chair and waited for her turn. After that group cleared out, Pamela had the guide, Pat, all to herself. Pat knows how to adapt to lefties, so she stood in front of Pamela rather than to her side to demonstrate how to weave the needle around the edge of a circle in a series of double humps.

I applied the same technique with Pamela that I use to teach her knitting. I held the material with my right hand, while she learned to work the needle with her lefthand. She and I muddled through making the yo-yo pinned to her shirt. A plastic template is an even easier way to make yo-yo's if we ever get serious about making a coverlet or decorative touches. After we got home, I was watching the video demo from the PBS show Nancy's Notions and Pamela asked, "Is it Nancy?" As a connoisseur of PBS, Pamela is already familiar with the show.

Occasionally, we meet people who don't get our "slow is better" and "less is more" approach. I'm not going to tell you which person it was because I appreciate the time everyone devotes to helping us learn about the Revolutionary War. One guide realized early into the rapid-fire spiel that Pamela wasn't following. I came alongside and tried gently guiding the guide by example. It didn't work. Unlike Peggy, this guide didn't follow my lead at all. In fact, when I slowed down and we explored things together, I would ask Pamela wondering questions (a la Steve Burns in Blues Clues). If Pamela didn't answer quickly enough, the guide would say the answer for her. Sigh. The person didn't seem to understand that sometimes it is better to wonder and enjoy the guessing game than it is to get it right the first time. Maybe, we'll have better luck with the impatient one next year.

Display Table

A Yo-Yo Block

Talking about Quilt Blocks

Directions for Making a Yo-Yo

Guiding Making a Yo-Yo

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Curing the Habit of Frustration

Sometimes, Pamela enjoys filling out the children’s bulletin during church. At other times, she makes lists of things that interest her: calendars, movies, history, etc. Today after the service, a friend commented on her “perfect” handwriting. Little did he know that, when she was six years old, Pamela seemed destined for dysgraphia. She cried when we gave a pencil and paper. She had no handedness, couldn’t cross the midline of her body, and could do little more than scribble.

In our well-intended efforts to catch her up to her peers, her teachers and I created a bad habit, the habit of frustration. Because Pamela lacked language, she couldn’t tell us that the bar we set was completely out of reach, unfair, and inappropriate. The only thing she could do was throw herself on the ground and have a fit. I learned through the school of hard knocks how to cure Pamela of this habit, and Charlotte Mason’s ideas outlined in her second book dovetail very well with what we did.

“Let us remember that this bad habit has made its record in the brain”—Pamela’s habit of frustration in writing was so strong that piercing screams began the moment she saw pencil and paper. It was an automatic reflex like Pavlov’s dog salivating at the sound of a bell.

“There is only one way of obliterating such record; the absolute cessation of the habit for a considerable space of time, say some six or eight weeks.”—We timed our first day of homeschooling around a move during the summer. Because we were too busy dejunking, packing, driving, visiting family, and unpacking, Pamela had about six weeks of freedom from worksheets.

“During this interval new growth, new cell connections, are somehow or other taking place, and the physical seat of the evil is undergoing a natural healing.”—While she still tantrumed about other things (changes in routine, elevators, uncertainty, eating the wrong food, etc.), Pamela had stopped fretting over pencil and paper because we no longer forced her to do the impossible. That particular trigger was starting to lose its power on her.

“But the only way to secure this pause is to introduce some new habit as attractive to the child as is the wrong habit you set yourself to cure.”—Some knowledgeable friends convinced me that the best way forward is to step backward. Clearly, Pamela wasn’t ready to write. She needed to develop pre-writing skills first: hand preference, bilateral coordination, crossing the midline, finger strength, and control. Instead of focusing on pencil and paper, we did many physical activities to work on her weaknesses, which I blogged awhile ago. The only paper task I gave her was something within reach: scribbling with crayon stubs.

“As the bad habit usually arises from the defect of some quality in the child it should not be difficult for the parent who knows his child’s character to introduce the contrary good habit.”—The issue in Pamela’s character was inability to trust adults. Who could blame her? We were clueless about autism, and so were most of the professionals we knew. Through the school of hard knocks, I learned to work where she was developmentally, not where the world thought she should be. That alone cured the habit of frustration! In time, I began to know when to encourage and when to back off by reading her body language and reading everything I could about autism.

“Take a moment of happy confidence between parent and child; introduce, by tale or example, the stimulating idea; get the child’s will with you.”—I was absolutely clueless about how to guide the thoughtlife of an autistic child because she couldn’t express what she was thinking. Fortunately, the year-long sabbatical was long enough that Pamela had stopped despising pencil and paper. I did many things to scaffold her physically in learning to write capital letters, which I blogged awhile ago. Even though, I hadn’t tapped into her imagination, we developed a happy confidence between us. She learned to trust me, and I learned to trust that she was doing her best when I stayed in her zone of proximal development (a tad beyond where she is).

“Do not tell him to do the new thing, but quietly and cheerfully see that he does it on all possible occasions, for weeks if need be, all the time stimulating the new idea, until it takes great hold of the child’s imagination.”—While I still didn’t understand the power of imagination, Steve Burns (of the television show Blues Clues) rescued me. Pamela fell in love with his show and, before long, she was filling pages and pages with clues. Honestly, I couldn’t have thought of a better way to drill her into better handwriting. Drawing clues fired her imagination, and, to her, she was playing, not improving her fine motor skills.

“Watch most carefully against any recurrence of the bad habit.”—We have nearly overcome the habit of frustration. Occasionally, Pamela throws a mild, half-hearted fuss when she doesn’t get her way. The falling-on-the-floor, kicking-and-screaming are a thing of the past. Curing this bad habit took years and years of removing triggers one by one, working with Pamela where she was, helping her learn to express herself, and respecting her as a person.

“Should the old fault recur, do not condone it. Let the punishment, chiefly the sense of your estrangement, be acutely felt.”—This step is quite tricky when guiding a person with autism. Six years ago, this advice would have utterly failed. Relationship Development Intervention helped us guide Pamela in her flexible thinking and ability to form relationships with people. She still has long way to go, but she can now read my body language and facial expression. She can process when I am upset and when I am distancing myself from her because she has crossed a line.

Even better, Pamela knows how to do things that make me laugh! Yesterday, she walked into the television room and announced, “It’s Saint Patrick’s Day. I’m drinking beer.” She had a glass of root beer.

Later in the day, I was rehearsing for something I have to sing on Monday. I usually record it on my computer, so I can polish up the rough spots. Pamela wanted to get my attention, and she did as you can see in the pictures below.

Pamela Makes Faces to Get My Attention

She Has My Full Attention

She Starts Cracking Up Too

Pamela Sits on the Couch and Laughs

Monday, March 05, 2012

Telling It Slant

Last week, as often happens using a Mason way of teaching, the stars aligned and we "happened" to read Emily Dickinson's poem "Hope" at the very moment Pandora opened the beautiful box tied with an intricate knot made of a golden cold. In Nathaniel Hawthorne's telling of this myth, trouble came in the form of a black cloud blotting out the sun, a sudden swarm of black winged creatures resembling bats. Pandora shut the lid so quickly that she trapped Hope in the box. We finally reached the appearance of Hope as a sunny and smiling fairy who makes sunshine dance into dark corners. We are going to read the poem again today.
Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words
And never stops at all
People with autism tend to take things literally and have difficulty seeing gray. Interpreting poetry can be anathema to them. But, I have hope for Pamela. She has already noticed that Pandora and Epimetheus seem so much like Eve and Adam and that their box let loose trouble in their world much like the apple did for our world. I would love to tell you that a miracle happened today, and Pamela made all sorts of lovely connections between Pandora and the poem, but she did not. And, that is okay. If she did everything perfectly the first time, then we would have no longing for Hope. I draw hope from what Hope said about her rainbow-colored wings, "They are like the rainbow because, glad as my nature is, I am partly made of tears as well as smiles." That is the journey of autism, tears and smiles.

Autistic people often wonder why not tell it straight. Why not just come out and say the black-and-white of the thing so that others know exactly what you mean? Struggling through the interpretation of poetry in high school, I often asked the same question! Thirty years later, a wonderful article at DoggieHeadTilt about Dickinson's "Tell All the Truth But Tell It Slant" answered my question:
Tell all the Truth but tell it slant—
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth's superb surprise
As Lightening to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind—
Last month, I sang at the funeral of a dear friend last, and I could not look directly at his widow because the truth of her loss would have undone me in the middle of the song. I could not find the right words to tell her face-to-face. Everything that came to mind was too harsh, too painful, too searing until I came across Emily's "The Lost Jewel." The only thing I could do was tell it slant in a card with one of Pamela's watercolors and these sweet words about a sweet man:
I held a jewel in my fingers
And went to sleep.
The day was warm, and winds were prosy;
I said: "'T'will keep."

I woke and chid my honest fingers,
The gem was gone;
And now an amethyst remembrance
Is all I own.
Why didn't C.S. Lewis tell Narnia straight?

In his youth, Lewis had turned his back on God for many reasons. God used imagination, not reason, to win him back. Lewis said of George MacDonald's Phantastes, "What it actually did to me was to convert, even to baptise... my imagination. It did nothing to my intellect nor (at that time) to my conscience... the quality which had enchanted me in his imaginative works turned out to be the quality of the real universe, the divine, magical, terrifying and ecstatic reality in which we all live."

Poetry gave Lewis the desire to know a dying god in Norse mythology. "The third glimpse [of Joy] came through poetry.... I idly turned the pages of the book and found the unrhymed translation of Tegner's Drapa and read, 'I heard a voice that cried, Balder the beautiful is dead, is dead—' I knew nothing about Balder, but instantly I was uplifted into huge regions of northern sky, I desired with almost sickening intensity something never to be described." And, when Lewis finally met the dying God, desire overcame reason and he accepted Christ.

Christ himself told it slant! How many times did people wonder who He was and He never gave them a straight answer? Even when He described himself in slant ways (the Bread of life, the Living Water, the Son of Man, the Son of God, the Way, Truth, and Life, the Light), some accused Him of blasphemy and tried to kill Him. What would they have done had Jesus said, "I am God in the flesh"? The Truth was so dazzling they were blind to it, even when Jesus veiled it in slant references.

Jesus often explained big ideas about God to the people in slant ways. The psalmist wrote, "O my people, hear my teaching; listen to the words of my mouth. I will open my mouth in parables, I will utter hidden things, things from of old" (Psalm 78). Jesus did more than fulfill prophecy by speaking in parables. In Matthew 13, Jesus explained how He gave those who were ready for meat firsthand knowledge for they were able to digest it. To others, He gave milk because they could hear but not understand for a variety of reasons.

Perhaps, their hearts were hard. Or, they covered their ears because they feared the truth. Maybe, they blocked the light coming into their eyes the way we pull down the visor when driving into direct sun. Jesus fed those closed to the Truth by telling it slant. Isn't it easier to tolerate the sun at its rising and setting when the rays slant the most? And, when the disciples themselves could not handle it straight such as at the beginning of Luke 18, he fell back on telling it slant through parables like that of the persistent widow.

The Truth in these parables is not as obvious as it may appear. Two years ago, my church's Wednesday Bible study group read Tim Keller's The Prodigal God, which revolutionized how we read parables and how we understand events in the Bible. Since you may not be familiar with this take on a well-known parable, I don't won't spoil the joy you will find in uncovering the surprising truths embedded in the parable typically called "The Prodigal Son"—I wince at even typing that title because it is only one-third of the message. When I read Cain and Abel, I think of the two brothers in Jesus' parable. At the reunion of two other estranged brothers Jacob and Esau, I wonder if Jacob's comment is a foreshadowing of the True Elder Brother to come, " For I have seen your face, which is like seeing the face of God, and you have accepted me." (Genesis 33:10).

A few weeks ago, the sermon made me gasp when it hit me that Jesus was living out the role of the True Elder Brother when the woman was caught in adultery. When the duty-driven Pharisees questioned Jesus, he wrote on the ground. He could have hit them with the direct, unadulterated truth that their sins were just as grievous hers from the perspective of our holy and righteous God. Instead, He bent down to write on the ground until they were ready to hear it slant. He simply said, "If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her." They figured it out and left. Then, he dealt with the woman who knew she deserved what was coming. But, he did not condemn her. He accepted her and told her to leave her life of sin.