Tuesday, January 29, 2008

And the Winner Is . . .


Some of the blogs I read occasionally link to contests. On December 13, one click of a mouse whisked me off to the 12 Blogs of Christmas Contest sponsored by Homeschool E-Store. To win a $50.00 coupon for homeschooling E-products, all I had to do was leave a caption for an old-time photograph of some unhappy children dressed like native Americans that answered the question, "So tell me, what are these homeschool children thinking?" The esteemed judges (the Simple Folk family) would choose the wittiest entry. I spent all of about two seconds and wrote, "Not another unit study!" Nine days later, imagine my excitement when I read the following comment on my blog.
I just wanted to let you know that you have won "The Twelve Blogs of Christmas" contest! You'll be receiving a $50.00 gift certificate from HomeschoolEstore. Please email me at SimpleFolkBlog AT aol DOT com and I'll get the coupon code to you. Thanks for participating and have a very Merry Christmas!
I smugly congratulated myself for thought of as witty by a bunch of kids. It took me awhile to puzzle through what SimpleFolkBlog AT aol DOT com meant. The post announcing the winner at SimpleFolks sufficiently deflated my pride . . .
Oh my, we had fun with this contest. There were 35 witty, creative entries in all! Because they were all so great and we could have only one winner, we decided to just pull a name out if a hat (a John Deere hat to be specific).
Oh, joy! It wasn't my natural witty and flair for cute captions. I was a number in a hat . . . But, a win is a win, so I headed off to the E-store with its huge selection of E-products to keep me puzzled for a few days!

The first thing I did was type Charlotte Mason into the search box, but nothing popped that I really needed at this advanced stage of homeschooling in which we live (think teenager-ville). The second thing I did was think about what my very unique kids need the most. My mind echoed those haunting words


After yesterday's rant against standardized testing, I am about to speak out of both sides of my mouth! I do think most homeschoolers must learn to play the SAT game because, in most cases, they must score well to be accepted into their college of choice. And, while I strongly believe that reading and narrating living books is the best way to learn, students must master certain skills like the almighty essay (the new bugaboo on the SAT) or filling out multiple-guess bubbles after reading a short passage.

So, I spent my $50 coupon on David, my resident tenth-grade SAT-tester in training. I ordered Essay Architect and two Home Base English Reading Comprehension Multiple Choice files (one for ages 13-15 and another for ages 16-18). These are all PDF files which means I paid no shipping and handling fees!

This week, we started working on essays and will launch the multiple guessing stuff next week. I probably could have searched all over the Internet for the topics covered in the 104-page Essay Architect. But, the price was right! The lessons plans are very teacherese, so I am already adapting them. For example, on Day One, I am supposed to hand out a blank flow chart and a blank definition sheet with twenty terms like thesis statement and formality and expect David to fill it out while I talk; then I am to give him a two-page quiz on Day Two . . . RIGHT! I know from personal experience how inefficient pump-and-dump teaching is, especially with a big-picture, practical, kinesthetic learner like him!

So, for Week One, I am handing him an essay per day to let him identify all twenty elements from real-live essays (or dead if they are boring). I will give him the quiz on Friday, and I'll bet a cookie that he will pass with flying colors without studying! After that, I plan to teach the seven types of essays, five ways to organize flow, and the five kinds of essay prompts in the same manner for the same reason.

Beyond the vocabulary-rich world of living books, David has been studying word roots by playing the Word Roots software. While these games are not action-packed graphic-digital joy, he does not mind them because he enjoys figuring words based on roots. One less thing I have to teach face-to-face works for me. He has already finished A1 and needs to work through A2 and B1. After that, he might enjoy the highly addictive Free Rice game to practice multiple guess vocabulary words and feed the hungry all at the same time!

Then, I plan to turn his attention to some of the free special features at the College Board website. He can answer the question of the day or practice critical reading questions. They even offer free practice tests. And for a nominal fee of only $17.49 a month, he can take an online course. For a little more, we can even order the official guide to the dreaded SAT.

Speaking of good deals, freebies, and drawings, parents/homeschoolers and school teachers are eligible to win a $50.00 coupon for Critical Thinking products ONE WINNER PER WEEK EVERY WEEK THIS YEAR.

Uh, why am I telling the competition?

Monday, January 28, 2008

What Grade Is Pamela?

It took me years to accept deep down in my heart that Pamela has her own timetable in many aspects of her development. She is doing sixth grade math but learning relationship skills that most infants master--that SHE mastered before she showed signs of autism. Through guided reading, she is working on Year 5 and Year 6 of Ambleside Online but her expressive language skills are more like that of a young child. She keeps copious notes in multiple journals with as much emotional content as a three-year-old child. Many people with autism are extremely scattered in various areas of development.

Today, I can type this without flinching!

To a lesser extent, I think this scattered nature of learning is true for many children. In fact, every educator should read the chapter What Grade Is Betsy? from Understood Betsy because NO CHILD is exactly on grade level in every subject. Every child is different, born a person with unique attributes, unique skills, unique abilities, unique weaknesses, etc. The reason why some homeschoolers let go of grade-level thinking is because they see how every child develops along similar developmental paths BUT at different rates in different areas.

I will go further on a limb of heresy to say this may be why our No Child Left Untested schools are failing. Standardized testing pushes us to treat kids like little robots that are all going to learn at the same pace. Give them the same input, and you should get the same output. Teach them in the same style, and you should get the same results. The human mind is too diverse for that, and such "programming" fails!

The reason why I believe we get stuck on this age-oriented thinking is behaviorism. Our schools hinge around the belief that kids ought to learn the same age-level things at the same time. When kids are very advanced or very delayed, schools fail them. There is no recognition that, to quote Charlotte Mason, "Children are born person!" Behaviorism assumes children are a blank slate and, with the right manipulations at the right time, they will learn what we think they need to learn on a given schedule.

One thing I have learned from reading the extensive biographies required in Ambleside Online is the sketchy formal education of some of the world's most talented people. Look at someone like Laura Ingalls Wilder: she jumped in and out of school, homeschooled sometimes, and attended regular school at others. She earned her teaching certificate at age 15 and yet went back to school when her little rural school was not in session. Benjamin Franklin, Michael Faraday, Jane Austen, etc. all had very little formal education and still made incredible contributions to society. People like Nathaniel Bowditch, Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver thirsted so much for learning and knowledge, they let nothing stand in their way!

The key is the zone of proximal development. If you push too hard past that zone, then you will develop the habit of frustration (tears and meltdowns). The key is to figure out the zone for each area of learning and life and go from there. This is not unique; in fact, the zone was very predominant in the little one room school house described in many novels and historical fiction.

Here is a great example of what happens when you force a child to work outside of the zone for too long. We pulled Pamela out of school when she was 6.5 years old. She hated anything to do with writing. She screamed at the sight of paper and writing things. WHY? In an effort to get her caught up, they were working her way beyond her zone! She did not have a hand preference, and they were expecting her to learn to write. She did not cross the midline, and they expected her to write. Her pencil grip was nonexistent; she had no strokes (just scribbles); her finger grip was very weak. And yet, they were teaching her to write her name!


We took a one-year sabbatical from writing! We worked on hand preference--she became a leftie within about six months. We did exercises that worked on all of the pre-writing skills mentioned above. After a year, no more tears! She was in the zone, so we spent two more years doing the Kindergarten Handwriting without Tears book. We took our time and made it through the First Grade and Second Grade printing book.

Now, at over a decade later, Pamela loves to write. She has a journal, she makes lists of all kinds of things, she draws, she spends much of her day with pen or pencil and paper--FOR FUN!!!

Charlotte Mason encouraged home educators and helped develop curricula for PNEU schools (schools with her style of teaching). She was aware of the need to stay with the child. She did not recommend teaching the alphabet until the child showed an interest. Then, she recommended using an elaborative style (dialog with the child about the alphabet). She knew that kids usually transitioned from oral to written narration between the ages of 9 to 12. If you look at the ages of the child in various forms (grades), the ages are very fluid. That being said she would not ever accept a child under age 6 into school, no matter how precious, because they still needed lots of freedom and outdoor time and daily life activities. She never used the term zone of proximal development, but she understood the principle and accepted it.

Thursday, January 24, 2008


Pamela did not want to make meatballs yesterday, so I did it without my sidekick. Queen Mum, one of these days I will film us making meatballs together. She did, however, eat them for lunch and dinner today. She told me she wanted to eat "stringy noodles" (nockerl) and was kind enough to help me. She topped it with Prego sauce.

Here is the recipe.

1/2 cup gluten-free cornflake crumbs
1/2 cup almond meal
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon dried sage leaves
1 tablespoon dried marjoram leaves
1 pound pork sausage
1 pound ground beef
2 eggs
1 medium onion, chopped
2 tablespoons minced garlic

Combine the first five ingredients. Add the last five ingredients and mix thoroughly by hand. Roll into small balls. Bake at 350 degrees for 30 to 40 minutes.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

How Not to Be Frazzled by Fractions!

Last week, Pamela was supposed to be wrapping up the final lesson on subtracting and adding fractions, including complex problems like finding a common denominator. She usually finds it easy to keep pace with the logic required in Making Math Meaningful Level 6. She could do everything except borrow one to make the fraction in the minuend (positive term) larger than the fraction in the subtrahend (negative term). The question I pondered all weekend was how to apply scaffolding to this!

At first, I fell back on my visual-kinesthetic worksheet-ish sort of thing because I thought, once she visualized it, she would understand it. I set up all of the colored boxes and let her fill in the numbers.

Great idea?????

NO!!!! It tanked!

So, I decided to try the scaffolding approach:

(1) Shared Understanding: I recalled how Pamela worked these problems to figure out what she could do independently:
  • Subtract the whole numbers.
  • Know when to find a common denominator.
  • Give the fractions common denominators.
  • Subtract the fractions IF the first one is big enough.
  • Know whether or not to borrow.
  • Write the whole number 1 as the fraction number.
(2) Zone of Proximal Development: Then I figured out what Pamela needed to learn to do:
  • Reduce the whole number by one.
  • Add the fraction version of the whole number 1 to the original fraction.
I considered whether or not these skills are in the Zone of Proximal Development. Then, I recalled that she has no problems borrowing for numbers with more than two digits. And then, I realized that building upon what she already knows might be the best way to nail it! Clearly, this skill is in the zone.

(3) Scaffolding: Scaffolding involves three elements: warm encouragement, self-regulation, and joint problem solving. Self-regulation is the ability to let thought guide behavior. According to Dr. Laura Berk in Awakening Children's Minds, "when adults ask children questions and make suggestions that permit them to participate in the discovery of solutions, then transfer of useful strategies to the child is maximized" (page 49). Charlotte Mason's book Formation of Character provides many examples of how parents can teach children to self-regulate. The key is to let language help the child reflect on alternatives, which is what she put in her twenty principles:
Children must learn the difference between "I want" and "I will." They must learn to distract their thoughts when tempted to do what they may want but know is not right, and think of something else, or do something else, interesting enough to occupy their mind. After a short diversion, their mind will be refreshed and able to will with renewed strength. Principle 17 translated into modern English by Leslie Laurio

Pamela and I have been doing joint problem solving for years! Scaffolding requires the parent to observe the child's level of competence. When the child falters, the parent provides more support. When the child is sailing, the parent simply observes and makes little encouraging remarks. A nearly mastered task, like this one, only needs indirect hints, while tasks at the outer edge of the zone require more direct, pointed support. Laura Berk gives a great example of how a father and his daughter put a puzzle together with these joint problem solving techniques in Chapter 2 of her book.

Warm parenting is a no-brainer for me. I had already determined how to help Pamela self-regulate by comparing borrowing with fractions to what she already knows. All I needed to do was to watch for moments of confusion and guide her thinking with an insightful question or statement.

The first thing I did was to remind her how we borrow for a two-digit number. Charlotte Mason loved this technique of taking what is already known and relating it to the unknown.

Then, I pointed out to her how we can do the same thing with fractions. "What do you think we could do with the 4? . . . What fraction do you need? . . . What does the whole number 1 equal? . . . What can you do with the fractions I circled? . . . Do you see how we can rewrite the problem?"

Here is her first attempt. She did pause a couple of times and reference me when uncertain. She was quite excited to see that what puzzled her yesterday became clear as day today.

The exciting thing was Pamela did most of these problems without hesitation in the many variations you can have. You would think that mastering this within the first five minutes of applying this strategy would have made my day. But, no, I have even more excitement to share once you scroll past the pictures!

Emotion Sharing Highlights
  • Yesterday, Pamela told me she had a stomach-ache. She never tells me her stomach hurts except right before she throws up. Later last night, I figured out she had PMS! That was the first time in five years she ever told me about cramps!
  • About half way through working on fractions, she turned to me and said, "Steve will be proud!" You can bet that, when I showed him the sheet, he told her how proud he was and then made a copy of it to take with him to the office!
  • She INVENTED a new game: drive or fly. She names two states and asks whether or not you should drive or fly. She even corrected me when she disagreed. She laughed at my play on words: highway or flyway.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Forming an Autobiographical Self

Pamela's memory of her life (autobiographical memory) is somewhat static because she remembers her life in terms of statistics. She is masterful at pinpointing the places and times of events in her life, right down to the day of the week. In her journal in a box, a review of the year 2007, she recorded every day faithfully, regardless of whether or not something special happened. When I study how she reflects upon her life in her autobiography or journal in the box, she writes with an repetitive style and elaborates on very few details. Her writings do not display much evidence of episodic memory, which allows a person to plan for potential scenarios in the future by reflecting on the past. Page 11 of this presentation outlined the three components of this type of memory: (1) raw data about the event itself, (2) the emotion experienced, and (3) the meaning extracted.

Like many people in the autism spectrum, Pamela clearly has nailed down one of the three components of this memory (raw data) but does not think it important to encode emotions or attach meaning to the event. Actually, I think she encodes basic emotions and learns from the past. However, she does not process it as fully as typical children because she does not record it in her journal nor share it with us.

I analyzed entries from her journal to understand better how her memory works. Even though she does not truly remember her earliest years, she recorded an average of 9 sentences per year for her first four years of life. That average jumped to 19 sentences per year for her fifth through seventh years, 29 sentences for her eighth through twelfth year, and 43 for her thirteenth through fifteenth year. Pamela kept a journal for a writing class, which seared the idea of tracking memories into her mind. Since then, she has written an average of 201 sentences per year without consulting any journal or other material. She is still writing 2007 up in two separate places, her journal in a box and a journal received from her Aunt Pam for Christmas. The year with the highest number of entries is the year she kept a journal: 293 sentences for one year. However, if she continues to record two or three sentences per day for 2007 in her puppy dog journal, she will eclipse that record!

Pamela found data about her earliest years from pictures, videos, and things we had told her. Her most vivid written memories come from home videos. When she was younger, she enjoyed going through her old homeschooling records and files as another source of raw data to supplement what she remembers. The first authentic memories I can identify as having no record occurred when she was six years old.
  • When we moved to Connecticut, we put some of her videos and toys in a storage locker and made monthly trips to cycle through them.
  • When she turned seven, she broke a couple of videos but did not record her emotions.
  • Her first recorded emotion was getting sick and throwing up at co-op class when she was nine.
  • The next strong emotion was a year later when Steve put some of her videos and toys in boxes in the garage. She wrote, "I was mad." I think this might be linked to earlier memories of storage and breaking videos and could be viewed as episodic memory.
  • Her strongest undocumented memories I can find are weekend trips we took in which we did not take pictures.
  • Even her most recent recorded memories, recorded as a daily record, do not reveal much emotion nor reflection upon the future.
I have been thinking about what Dr. Laura Berk wrote in Awakening Children's Minds about the formation of autobiographical memory in light of Pamela's written memories, "Similarly, several psychological explanations focus on changes in the nature of memory during the preschool years--from an unconscious, automatic, and nonverbal system to one that is conscious, deliberate and verbal" (page 54). Two milestones in coding memory are to have a well-formed sense of self and an autobiographical narrative. By age four, children usually form a sense of self when they know they are the same person though constantly growing and changing in appearance. Children learn to organize their personal experiences into an autobiographical narrative through conversations with adults.

When I compare this research to Pamela, I find something interesting: her strongest emotional memories did not get recorded until she was verbal and had some language. At age seven, she started using echolalic words freely and spontaneously. By nine, she was better able to string two words together, but not in fully formed sentences or great depth. It causes me to wonder if her memories became more deliberate when she had words to process them.

Of course, the prescription for me to help Pamela attach emotion to memory and reflect upon the past and future sounds very much like Charlotte Mason's ideas. The key is for parents to dialog with children in a narrative manner, or elaborative style, by posing many and varied questions, building on children's statements by adding more information, and verbally evaluating events. Charlotte provided wonderful examples of such dialogs in her book, The Formation of Character. In the chapter called Under a Cloud, the mother talks with her young daughter about the sad day they all had because of the girl's moodiness:
"So my poor Agnes has had a very sad day?"

"Yes, mother," with a sob.

"And do you know we have all had a very sad day––father, mother, your little brother, Nurse––every one of us has felt as if a black curtain had been hung up to shut out the sunshine?"

The child was sympathetic, and shivered at the sight of the black curtain and the warm sunshine shut out.

"And do you know who has put us all out in the dark and the cold? Our little girl drew the curtain, because she would not speak to any of us, or be kind to any of us, or love any of us all the day long; so we could not get into the sunshine, and have been shivering and sad in the cold."

"Mother, mother!" with gasping sobs; "not you and father?"

"Ah! I thought my little girl would be sorry. Now let us try to find out how it all happened. Is it possible that Agnes noticed that her brother's pear was larger than her own?"

"Oh, mother, how could I?" The poor little face was hidden in her mother's breast, and the outbreak of sobs that followed was very painful. I feared it might mean actual illness for the sensitive child. I think it was the right thing to do; but I had barely courage enough to leave the results in more loving hands.

"Never mind; don't cry any more, darling, and we will ask 'Our Father' to forgive and forget all about it. Mother knows that her dear little Agnes will try not to love herself best any more. And then the black curtain will never fall, and we shall never again be a whole long day standing sadly out in the cold. Good-night from mother, and another good-night from father."

The treatment seems to answer. On the slightest return of the old sullen symptoms we show our little girl what they mean. The grief that follows is so painful that I'm afraid we could not go on with it for the sake of the child's health; but, happily, we very rarely see a sulky face now; and when we do we turn and look upon our child, and the look melts her into gentleness and penitence.
One technique in RDI is to spotlight the emotions attached with the event, which the mother in this vignette does. She spotlights the sadness of her daughter Agnes as well as the entire family, evaluating how her sullen moods affect the entire family--a revelation to Agnes. She points out the source of the sadness, too. Whenever the sullen moods, they reminded her of the past to help her evaluate how the entire family feels. In time, all the parent needed to do was sadly look at Agnes to melt a sulky face into gentleness.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Extra! Extra! Oatmeal: Back on the Menu!

Good news!

A long-time, veteran listmate at Aut-2B-Home has family members with celiac disease so she has to be vigilant about staying gluten-free. She reported today that Bob's Red Mill is offering two kinds of GLUTEN-FREE oatmeal: gluten-free rolled oats and gluten-free steel cut oats! (Thank you, Sherri!!!)


. . . blueberry cobbler for breakfast

. . . meatballs for lunch

. . . granola for a snack

. . . meatloaf for dinner

. . . oatmeal cookies for dessert!

I quote:
Gluten-sensitive consumers have avoided commercially grown oats because they can be subject to cross-contact with gluten-containing grains during planting, harvest, transport, milling and packaging.

To solve this dilemma and provide a beloved food (used for breads, cookies, cakes, breakfasts and more) to the 3 million Americans diagnosed with Celiac Disease, Bob's Red Mill has sourced oats from more than 200 pedigree-seed oat farmers dedicated to growing pure oats.

Once harvested, the oats undergo testing to meet the R5 ELISA standards, a rigorous test for the presence of gluten. Only oats that pass this test are shipped to Bob's Red Mill. They are again tested before they are packaged in the company's dedicated gluten free facility. Batch testing is performed once more after packaging.

Snoopy dancing in South Carolina!

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Good Feelings

Chapter 1
Pamela watches ETV (PBS) and stims verbally about Nancy who sews, Priscilla who does yoga, and Julia who cooks. Last night, Pamela took it a step further. After we finished reading our last book for the day, she turned to me and said, "Meatballs." The passage described five men sailing in a storm near the Hebrides in a leather boat; meatballs were not on the menu. So, I repeated with a surprised tone, "Meatballs?"

She explained, "Meatballs for dinner, just like Julia!"

I asked, "Did Julia make some meatballs?"


Mimicking the voice of Julia Child I told her that I would have to find a gluten-free/casein-free recipe on the Internet. Pamela thought I was quite silly and laughed.

Pamela's sensory issues with cooking have improved. Last week, she actually rolled balls out of cookie dough. She let me mix the meat with other ingredients by hand, but she rolled meatballs with her hands. She does make faces but tolerates it because Julia does it.

The meatballs were delicious. With face-to-face engagement, I told Pamela how much I enjoyed the yummy meatballs. No, Queen Mum, I did not take pictures nor keep track of the ingredients.

I wonder what is for dinner tomorrow night? Meatloaf? Stuffed peppers? More meatballs?

Chapter 2
Today, we baked bread from a mix in the bread machine and survived a culinary crisis. After an hour, Pamela and I checked on the bread, and the machine had not mixed the dough! DOH! The RDI techniques of face-to-face interactions and spotlighting flew out of my head, but I did redeem myself by thinking out loud. Pamela watched me frantically unplug the machine, push the pan into the machine securely, mix the wet and dry ingredients together, and restart the machine. We stood there and watched the machine in action to make sure it mixed.

The bread turned out delicious and, after I sliced off two pieces and put them on a plate, I spotlighted the moment by sniffing the bread and enjoying the scent. She imitated me and said, "Good!"

Then, Pamela smiled and looked at me, "Butter!" (Some butter-like spreads are casein-free.)

I smiled back and said warmly, "Butter? That sounds delicious! What a great idea!"

Then, she added, "Just like Laura!"

So, I spotlighted her recall of Little House in the Big Woods, "I remember when Laura and Ma made butter and baked bread! That is one of my favorite books!" Pamela adores all of the Little House books as do I.

Chapter 3
Pamela started a new book today: Miracles on Maple Hill. I try to ease her into books by spotlighting connections to her life. The heroine of the book is from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (about an hour north of where we lived a few moves ago).

Pamela loves guessing games, so I smiled mysteriously and showed her the cover of the book, "Guess where the girl lives! I'll give you a clue: you lived in this state." Because of the snow on the cover illustration, she guessed it on the third try.

To her delight, the first page held another connection. Marly, the little girl, is basically asking her mother to repeat her favorite stim phrase. No, she's not autistic, but the girl's request sounded eerily familiar. Anyone living in autism land will find the author's explanation familiar: "She could tell that Mother was afraid Daddy would object to hearing the same thing over and over."

A few months ago, Pamela stimmed by asking, "What is nagging?" with the answer "saying the same thing over and over." So, after I reread the passage aloud, a big smile crept over her face. She smiled when the author talked about the Pittsburgh symphony, hills, snow, and farmhouses, which are all familiar to her. I love it when Pamela takes to a book in the first chapter.

Page four had a wonderful passage that I think describes how emotions play a role in how children encode memory.

The truth was that when Mother said those certain words all the good feelings came back. Grandma's whole house and yard and her whole Maple Hill were in those words, just the way Mother had described them ever since Marly could remember. Grandma was in them, too, with the way Mother said her voice was, like a bird's voice if it pretended to be cross but really wasn't. Mother was in them, too, but in a special way. Not the way she was now, but the way she had been when she was Marly's age. Every summer she had come to visit her Grandma at Maple Hill, right here in Pennsylvania's corner.

How so many things could be in a few words was something else Marly didn't know. But it was the same way the whole feel of school can be in the sound of a bill ringing. Or the way the whole feeling of spring can be in one robin on a fence post.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Emotion Sharing and the Building Blocks of Narration

Whew! I feel like a pregnant woman who can finally see her toes. During the holidays, we had family and friends staying with us and our last visitor left on Monday. Three of my siblings (whom I rarely see) were staying at my parents' house across the street. My email box was overflowing, and the pile of laundry left over from David's ski trip was ten times larger than a mogul! I am finally getting my email box to less than twenty unanswered emails every morning--hey! I can see my toes!

I put blogging Awakening Children's Minds by Dr. Laura Berk on hold and am raring to go. I can see the light at the end of Chapter 2, but I need to weave a few more dangling threads into my mind before moving onto the next chapter. If you have not been following these posts, I listed them in order of thought flow in the Topical Index in the sidebar on the right. Most consultants recommend this book for parents learning about RDI. If you have no clue about what RDI is, one consultant in training put together a handy FAQ and resource list to enlighten you!

In Chapter 2, Laura Berk points out that typical young children are born ready to narrate. They pick up nonverbal communication from their parents through making faces, back and forth interactions, lap games, etc. Before they can talk, they observe their parents' actions and imitate them. Once verbal, they reproduce steps explained and modeled by parents by doing and narrating their activities in short phrases. Once they master observing, acting out, and narrating events in sequence, they start borrowing their parents' assessment of emotion and internal motivations and apply it to their own narrations. Then, they start detecting unusual events that stand out against the backdrop of common routine things. Through daily activities and dialogues with children, parents foster development of these skills.

An example of this would be a child watching her mother load the washing machine. The little one puts clothes in a basket one by one and pretends to add the soap and push some buttons. In time, she would repeat her mother's explanations, "Dirty clothes. Getted soap. Goed on." Later, she reflects that she feels better after a bath, so the clothes must feel better too after their bath. One day, the load in the washing machine becomes unbalanced and begins kick-boxing. Her eyes widen in fear until her calm mother explains that the clothes need to be moved around until all is right. When her daddy comes home, she describes how the washing machine got in a bad mood, and mother cheered it up.

Laura Berk and Charlotte Mason had similar views of children and narration. Laura wrote, "We arrange events in logical, sequential events in logical, sequential order, and we focus on explaining unusual, hard-to-interpret occurrences, often by dwelling on characters' intentions and perspectives. Even before they begin to talk, children display a readiness to participate in narrative (page 53)." Charlotte Mason recognized this readiness to narrate, too:
Narrating is an art, like poetry-making or painting, because it is there, in every child's mind, waiting to be discovered, and is not the result of any process of disciplinary education. A creative fiat calls it forth. 'Let him narrate'; and the child narrates, fluently, copiously, in ordered sequence, with fit and graphic details, with a just choice of words, without verbosity or tautology, so soon as he can speak with ease. This amazing gift with which normal children are born is allowed to lie fallow in their education (page 231).
Autism and the Building Blocks of Narration
One can imagine why young autistic children fall off this developmental path. They tend to focus their attention on predictable objects rather than confusing people. Because they spend very little time studying their parent's faces, they do not know how to interpret facial expressions and body language. When something usual happens, they are not comforted by their parent's reassuring face. They have difficulty shifting attention quickly, so that, if they do turn to their parents for comfort, they would already be too upset to notice. They find it easier to focus on an object than to follow a sequence of actions, which requires rapid shifting of attention.

While they pick up sequencing cause-and-effect in objects like spinning a plate and watching it slow down to a stop, narrating such activities will end up being static and routine. Because they are not paying enough attention to the daily activities around them, they do not learn to sequence events until much later. Because of their extra sensitive hearing, they block out what ends up being a monologue by their parents on daily activities. They miss out on parent's verbal explanations of emotions, intentions, motivations, and unusual events, just as they missed out on reading nonverbal communications. Since they find no comfort in their parents, they seek comfort in sameness, order, and predictability. When something unusual happens, they have no grounds to understand it and want everything to remain static and routine. Watching episodes of Monk might give you insight into this state of mind (we have many "Monk" moments in this house)!

Dr. Stephen Gutstein believes that autistic children can learn these building blocks of narration, even at older ages. Last February, when I first read his book Solving the Relationship Puzzle, I was skeptical! Now, I have seen with my very own eyes Pamela (1) enjoy face-to-face gazing, (2) communicate with her face, (3) interpret my facial expressions, and (4) follow my eye gaze. She performed these skills as an infant, but I wrongly thought she had lost them forever. I am learning daily that we can regain lost territory in relationship skills. She is eighteen years old and still smashing windows supposedly closed by being too old for brain plasticity!

Pamela seems to have caught onto referencing (Stage 2) more quickly than emotion sharing (Stage 1). I spent the past week processing every scrap I can find about emotion sharing and wrote up a vision. Writing down my plan helps me because I am not an RDI consultant, nor do I have one at this point in time. I am just a mom on a mission! What they have in their new computer system is far beyond what I can come up with on my own, but I have to start somewhere! The spiritual vision (from a Christian point of view) will help me in praying about our efforts. I described what I need to be thinking about and steps I can be taking during each and every interaction. Once I get MY act together, hopefully Pamela will follow my lead and develop more ability to share emotions.

Today's Escapades in Emotion Sharing
Today, I implemented my plans (listed at the end of this post) with interesting results. I made a point to be extra responsive to every interaction Pamela initiated. With verbal stims about Life Alert ("I've fallen and I can't get up") commercials which she finds funny, I would look at her sadly and talk about that poor woman, trying to redirect the stim along different lines of conversation every time. When she ignored my request to move her legs (she was sitting on the dog kennel with her feet resting on the washing machine), I crawled under her legs and pretended she was a bridge. Then, I stood up and waved, "Good bye, bridge!" Anything unusual catches her attention and treating her like a bridge was novel.

Pamela was not pleased about building her panda puzzle with me, but I had decided to do the puzzle first and then shop. I have already scaffolded this puzzle because of its difficulty. The first day, we focused only on the edges. The second day, we sorted the puzzles into three different colors (white, black, and green). The third day, she struggled with green on black pieces, so today I collected the white and black transitions on the fur.

While she put together her pieces, I worked on mine (pure black that you can only match by shape). Every time she fit two together, I smiled, waited for her to shift attention to my face, and made different remarks, "Hey! You put two together!" At one point, she put three together and shared her excitement with me. I responded enthusiastically again, this time with a high five. She found two to put together and referenced me to see if she was on track, "Help me with this!" I looked at it and told her, "I agree. It fits!" Then, she grabbed a third piece that she knew fit and put it together while I watched. I waited for her to shift attention and said, "Wow! White pieces are easier than black ones!"

Then, she floored me as we headed out the door to do our little shopping run. She paused and began sticking out her tongue at me playfully. I laughed, and we spent about half a minute making silly faces at each other! Yes, Pamela initiated something outside of her typical stim routine. Making funny faces is a great activity at this stage because you really cannot do it alone and have fun.

When I turned on the ignition, my favorite song came on the radio. Usually, Pamela pops in a CD right away, so I looked at her, waited for her attention to shift, and said, "This is my favorite song. You can pop in a CD when it's over!" Sometimes, Pamela fusses, but today she did not. While I drove, Pamela started her stim on days of the week, "What's TGIF?" I did something completely new by asking, "Friday. What do you think Monday is?" She replied, "TGIM." Then, I twisted it, "How about TBIM? Too bad it's Monday!" She laughed out loud at my unexpected comment. She asked about Tuesday, so I said, "Thank goodness it's prayer breakfast!" And, she came up with the acronym TGIPB.

We did our usual referencing stuff while shopping, but I made sure to be very positive and engaging in all of our reactions. Then, something nice happened with the clerk, who senses Pamela's sensitivities and makes a point to be sweet to her every time we shop. She greeted Pamela, who ignored her. So, I got her attention, pointed to the clerk, and remarked, "The lady said, 'Hi!'" Pamela returned the greeting. The clerk tried a couple of conversation lines that did not go anywhere and then complimented Pamela's jacket. Again, I pointed to the clerk and said, "She likes your jacket." Pamela looked at the clerk and said, "Yes, it's so beautiful."

I continued to pay careful attention to our interactions throughout the day. As with any relationship, we had our strained moments when both had to work hard. At one point in the evening, Pamela wanted to build the puzzle all by herself and very rudely told me, "Go away!" But, she made up for it when Steve came home. She hates when he has to travel overseas and she told him he could go to Knoxville in March 2008 (and we assume that means not before). She came up to me and looked me directly in the eye, wanting to confirm this. I avoid making promises I cannot keep, so I gave her a hug, pulled away to allow referencing, and said, "I don't know when or where Dad's trip will be. But, I do know one thing."

She responded with a gentle smile, "What?" So, I told her, "Your daddy misses you so much every time he has to go on a trip and he can't wait to come home."

Then, she beamed, "Where can I sleep?" to which I replied, "You can sleep in my bed until daddy comes home so you won't feel so lonely."

My Emotion Sharing Plan
If you have made it this far, you must be desperate for information . . . Anyway, here is my plan developed by me, myself, and I: Bible verse, spiritual vision, goal, elements needed to attain it, and my personal objectives for me, myself, and I.

Psalm 37: 4 Delight yourself in the LORD; And He will give you the desires of your heart.

God knows that, when we delight ourselves in Him, our heavenly Father, He will completely and abundantly fulfill the desires of our hearts. This relationship is the model for the parent-child relationship, and Pamela can learn to delight herself in her parents and important people in her life. While only God cannot give her the desires of her heart, we can show her the joy of dynamic relationships. I pray that learning to delight herself in a concrete expression of parenthood will teach her to love God and love others as herself. I pray that God will reveal to me the ways in which I can help her develop this delight.

The overarching goal of emotion sharing is for Pamela to desire sharing emotions with us. My goal is to recognize moments that we both feel emotionally bonded and spotlight them through anticipation and other elements. I need to develop a repertoire of fluid activities and actions that delight us. I will be careful to avoid mindless rewards and praises: for example, I can combine interjections with declarative statements and enthusiastic broadband communication, “Wow, I love building puzzles with you!” I can avoid caving to every whim by coming up with solutions that work for both of us. When Pamela interrupts an activity from which I cannot break away, I should let her know that I am disappointed and will get with her as soon as I can—and follow up on that promise with excitement! When she is in verbal-stim mode, I can either ignore it and distract her or morph it into another topic.

I already know that Pamela loves the following elements and will add to this list in the coming weeks:
• Build up to a surprising moment through hesitation and voice inflection.
• Unexpectedly make a change to an action or word.

Outside of these activities and actions, I need to make every interaction count! I can show interest and enthusiasm, especially when she makes an effort to share with me. I should keep my expectations low, responding to the smallest effort, just as a mother would react to her infant.

The following short-term objectives for me focus on emotion sharing during our interactions.
• Make Pamela aware of my intention to communicate through my presence and eager gaze and then wait.
• Begin communication only when I have her sustained attention.
• Pause when her attention falters, wait to give her a chance to regain her attention, and fall back on unexpected sounds and movements to reestablish communication.
• Pay attention to activities, actions, and elements we mutually enjoy for future reference.
• Respond with joy to forms of communication that are positive and engaging.
• Ensure every interaction ends with clear closure so she knows when she can relax.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

GF/CF Hungarian Nockerl (Noodle) Recipe

My sister and her fiance (who is German) are planning to move to the United States and marry. They are master wine makers and great cooks like my Mom. Last week, they made some Hungarian goulash and noodles, which were delicious and intriguing. When she described how she made the noodles, I realized it might be a great RDI activity because the technique is unusual and could be framed for many different objectives. The big trick for me was to create a gluten-free, casein-free version so Pamela could actually eat it!

The big caveat is you do this over boiling water and you need a child who is settled and calm. If you hold the grater, you will be closest to the pot and that might be one way to scaffold. You could experiment doing it over a small bowl of hot water and then transfer the water to the pot of boiling water. I did not need to do that with Pamela.

Special Equipment:
Grater with large holes, spatula, whisk or beater, slotted spoon

3 eggs
4 tablespoons non-cow milk
1 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup white rice flour
3/4 cup potato flour
1/2 cup corn starch
1 tablespoon xanthum gum

Bring a pot of water to a boil while you make the noodles.

Put the eggs, milk, and salt in a bowl. Beat well to get air into the liquids.

Put the flours, starch, and xanthum gum in a separate bowl and mix well. Add the flour to the liquid a half cup at a time and mix.

Here is a moment of uncertainty. Add a little water at a time until the dough is slightly wet and shiny, loose yet sticky. I did not have enough liquid in my dough, which was hard to mash in the next step.

I am posting video clips to get you through the rest of the recipe. Get the grater and the spatula and hold the grater over the pot of boiling water. Pamela referenced me to figure out the tools and what to do next. Place a spoonful of dough on the grater.

Push down on the dough to force it through the holes to form the noodles. We struggled here because my dough was too dry! The nockerl will fall into the boiling water and sink to the bottom. This is a great moment for declarative language, too.

Because the dough was too thick, I had to provide more support for Pamela. This is another great moment for declarative language because the nockerl that are ready will float to the surface of the water.

I did not have a bowl and slotted spoon handy to allow more referencing. Pamela gets these utensils out in this clip.

Use the slotted spoon to retrieve nockerl on the surface. This is my favorite clip. Pamela was paying careful attention to what I was doing. I stirred the nockerl into the spoon, paused, and looked at Pamela. She looked back at me and then placed her hand on the spoon to assist me! She split her attention between the nockerl and my face very nicely. Then, I backed off my hand and gave her minimal support in spooning out the nockerl herself. In a non-verbal way, I am helping her to let the noodles drain in the slotted spoon before putting them in the bowl. Then, we ended the clip with our taste test.

I did not measure the quantity, but I think the recipe yields 2 1/2 to 3 cups of nockerl. WOW! I found it delicious and ate some for lunch and dinner!

Pamela put tomato sauce on hers and ate it up! I stored the rest in a plastic bag and, when I served myself some for dinner later that day, the noodles still tasted yummy. They did not mush up on me like some GF/CF noodles do when stored.

While Pamela enjoys the fruit of her labor, we talk about what everyone thinks of her noodles in this final clip!

Monday, January 07, 2008

A Sweet Moment

One night last week, Pamela told us she was going to bed. Yes, I failed my personal parent RDI objective to prevent Pamela from bolting without closure. I was exhausted from entertaining company over the holidays, and my feet stayed glued to the floor. Yes, I am human.

As she left the room, Steve requested a goodnight kiss, which she ignored. We were too exhausted to trail her like RDI Superparents and allow face-to-face interaction. So, Steve got demanding, "Pamela, you get in here and give me a kiss."

She still ignored him. Then, he fell into his behavioral, forced compliance mode, "Pamela, come here right now. That's one. . . That's two!"

Now, I have been reading a wonderful book lately called Desiring God. This interaction reminded me of an analogy used in the book about duty and love. Will Steve feel loved if the only reason why I tidy up the house is because he will get upset? Will David be inspired when we discuss a book because it is my duty as a teacher? Will I feel joy because the only reason why Steve watches a movie with me is because he has nothing better to do?

Dwelling on that analogy, I asked Steve what a kiss would mean from someone coerced to do it. I asked him to let me handle it in a relational way with the caveat that Pamela could choose not to come back. He agreed.

Now, I should have gotten my carcass off the couch and talked to Pamela faced to face. I was just too tired. I called out, "Pamela, Daddy looks so sad. All he wants is a goodnight kiss. He is broken-hearted."

Then, we waited.

And, we waited.

We waited for about a minute when she burst into the room with a happy look on her face, and she kissed him goodnight. And, that kiss was sweeter than honey.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Surviving the Holidays

Last week, I promised to give some tips on how we helped Pamela learn to relax and enjoy family events.

Lowered Expectations
Our Daily Bread's devotional for December 19, 2007 made a great point about having a "real" Christmas. After noting that Jesus was born into a harsh world with no room for His family and run out of His homeland by a mad king seeking the murder of all infants His age, David C. McCasland wrote:
[Jesus] "comes to us, not to shield us from the harshness of the world but to give us the courage and strength to bear it; not to snatch us away by some miracle from the conflict of life, but to give us peace—His peace—in our hearts, by which we may be calmly steadfast while the conflict rages, and be able to bring to the torn world the healing that is peace."
The reality is that Pamela has autism. That means I have to find ways to accommodate her special needs while celebrating Christmas. That means I have to expect some conflict and storms. That means I may not have a picture-perfect celebration out of some Norman Rockwell painting. But, I can have that inner peace and calm steadfastness if I turn to God with my burdens.

Diet Issues
Pamela is on a special diet, and making exceptions for any holiday spells disaster! We have worked hard to find tasty versions of typical holiday recipes. In fact, people often eat Pamela's version without realizing it is "special" food. For many parents, the issue is not us, but clueless relatives. Those who approach our kids with a "just one cookie won't hurt" mentality unintentionally launch them into holiday meltdowns. I was fortunate because early on in the diet game all of Pamela's relatives on both sides of the family witnessed with their own eyes what the wrong food does to Pamela. They all help me figure out (1) what recipes and treats are safe for Pamela, (2) what foods I will need to bring as a replacement, and (3) what recipes they are willing to make Pamela friendly. Pamela has a better chance of relaxing and enjoying the celebration if she stays free of problem foods.

Sensory Issues
Pamela is much more resilient to sensory overload than she was ten years ago. We do not require her to wear special holiday attire, which can be itchy and uncomfortable for the tactile defensive--she has not worn a dress in years! In noisy settings, we allow her to protect her ears by covering them or leaving the room. She has learned to monitor her need for quiet and seek it on her own BEFORE she explodes. We accept that she might have to come and go, just to stay calm. When she was younger, I watched for signs that the ticking sensory-bomb was about to blow. I would whisk her out of the room and spin her until her body melted. We are very fortunate that Pamela's family on both sides accept our explanations of her sensory needs. They are not offended or upset when she quietly leaves a room to find an escape hatch. They know that her face rubbing, gentle rocking, or victory laps are her own expressions of joy. They also know that tantrums are a sign of extreme frustration, not of spoiled rotten behavior, which can be avoided if people follow our lead in helping Pamela cope with the holidays.

Slowing Down
Pamela needs people around her to slow down and wait patiently for her to process and react. More importantly, she needs "quiet time" in which we allow her to relax and get away from it all! In a week full of hustle and bustle, I have to be prepared for Pamela to ask to stay home and skip an event or two. If I do not heed her request to slow down, I end up regretting it. Here is a clip of the two most sensory-sensitive individuals in the household resting after we opened gifts. Every one is busy setting the table, fixing food, cleaning the dishes, etc. This clip shows what Pamela needs to be ready for the next event on the agenda (dinner).

Christmas for some autistic people is like being held captive in one of those King-Kong complex, seizur-ific, multiple Clauses, snowman-in-laws, MORE IS NOT LESS tacky Christmas yards. In early childhood, you might help keep them calm by having a simpler Christmas: a small tree on a table rather than the six-foot monstrosity, a few highly desired presents, only your most cherished decorations, one or two special family events, etc. When we moved to Connecticut and first started homeschooling, Pamela was 6.5 years old. We developed a routine of shopping, going to the park, nature walks, and checking out library books. Even library storytime was a big flop! We attended only a handful of homeschooling events throughout the year. We did not live near family and could celebrate Christmas in the quiet, slow way Pamela needed. Between simplifying her life and going on a special diet, Pamela was able to attend a few holiday events, meltdown free. From year to year, we slowly added back activities into her life and even moved near family. We began to build a routine into our Christmas like I had as a child: singing carols on the four Sundays of advent, counting down on the advent calendar starting on December 1, etc. We kept our celebrations small and family-focused. In her teen years, Pamela could handle more and we added musical performances and church events to the mix.

Not all gifts produce joy and finding the right gifts often presents a challenge, especially for non-verbal children. While at Wal-Mart, I came out and asked Pamela directly about what she wanted for Christmas. A few days later she added one more thing to her list, but I could not understand what she wanted. So, she wrote down towel robe on a piece of paper. Some autistic children have difficulty making decisions or verbalizing their choices, in which case it pays to observe their behavior in the toy aisle and during television commercials. Usually, our relatives will ask what Pamela wants for Christmas and I try to give them suggestions based upon her wishes or strong interests. This year, all of the aunts headed to Wal-Mart together to give each other ideas about what the nieces and nephews wanted. We saw many smiling faces at our Christmas celebration.

Pamela spent about five minutes examining her red towel robe but hardly glanced at the matching red slippers. Occasionally, her reactions are like A Christmas Story's Ralphie and Randy tossing clothes over their shoulders (twenty seconds into this trailer). When Pamela has that blank, zoned-out look, I try to smooth over hurt feelings by letting people know she is going into sensory shutdown. Another option is to photograph or film your child playing with the gift later, and letting the relative see how treasured the gift really is. If it is a pink bunny suit moment, well, the giver either has thick-skin or is not used to getting compliments.

Favorite Things
Like Maria in The Sound of Music, we let favorite things cheer up Pamela. Before we go on a trip or to someone's house, she packs her purple back-pack with her Game Boy Advance, Mario and Luigi Superstar Saga, paper, pencils, journals, Disney Charade cards, etc. When she was younger, I packed it for her, but now she has that responsibility. When that fails, reciting a couple of verbal stims together or talk about a strong interest helps her to regulate and reconnect. Lately, Baby Alive, the fifth member of our family, goes with us everywhere.

Short and Sweet
When away from home for the holidays, we always had to have Plan B. If a situation was too much from the start, we often skipped the event. If Steve or I had to be there, I looked for an escape hatch (some quiet place where we could hang out) or simply took Pamela home or back to where ever we were staying for the night. If we were at a hotel, we tried to pick one with a swimming pool because Pamela finds water calming.

With family that I see regularly, I try to work in discussions about Pamela's autism and needs and win them to our side. For example, last Sunday, I was hanging out my mother, and we got to talking about RDI. I told her I was so happy with how Pamela interacted and related to people at Christmas Eve. Mom wanted to know what she could do, and I told her the two big tips for beginners: SLOW DOWN and SPEAK DECLARATIVELY. Mom is going to let me give her tips whenever she and Pamela are interacting so that she can support what we are doing.

Sometimes, quickly evolving situations left no time for explanations. We have done things like make a kid's brochure to help peers understand Pamela better (the pamphlet helps adults, too). For babysitters, we wrote up two-page notes explaining everything that might need to know about handling Pamela. We have taken sign language off and on throughout the years, so often simply signing told people that Pamela was not an ordinary child. For large, anonymous crowds, you might have your child wear a T-shirt or hand out business cards. On field trips, Pamela wore a shirt that said, "Autism rocks," and David's shirt said, "We are in school" to keep the busybodies at bay.

Having to change as a parent and spend so much time planning and preparing can be draining. Being looked upon as the Adam's family when your cute little daughter is doing the Indy 500 around the church altar is no fun. I want to scream when told, "All she needs is a good pop on the hiney." Keeping our challenges in perspective keeps me sane. For example, think about how holiday planning changes for a family dealing with cancer. If one person attending Christmas dinner has a cold, you stay home! Pamela is mobile and healthy, so we do not have to carry around equipment or medical supplies. Over the years, as I saw Pamela becoming more and more resilient, I began to see that some day the holidays will get easier. And, I was right: Pamela had no problems this Christmas and told me she had fun as did Steve and I!

I could spend an entire post on the topic of toxic people. Some people do not care about you or your child. Anything odd or different spoils their precious day. They denigrate every decision you make and launch cruel, cutting remarks in front of your loved one. Some people have difficulty changing their ignorant, idiotic opinions no matter how much you try to spread autism awareness. In such cases, they leave you no option but to take control of your life and set healthy boundaries to protect your family from toxic people.

Safe People in Pamela's Life