Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Laundry Soap Results

Ten days ago, Pamela and I made our own dry laundry detergent from a very simple recipe. I washed the first load with 1/4 cup of detergent and was amazed at how well it cleaned the coffee stain from the table cloth. Since then, I have gradually decreased the amount to one tablespoon. Today, I washed two loads of clothes, some of which were stinky from hanging out at Striped Bass Festival in eighty-degree weather. I smelled the sweatiest clothes from Saturday and caught a whiff of nothing but the fresh air in which I dried the clothes outdoors. Once we attempt the ultimate test (washing Steve's running clothes), I will post the results!

Besides getting the laundry clean with fewer chemicals, we got a lot of mileage out of the activity. While making the detergent, we measured dry ingredients, added, shared the experienced through declarative language, attended jointly, worked on life skills, added a vocabulary word, and practiced nonverbal communication. Last Tuesday, I gave Pamela some ratio problems in which she calculated the cost of each ingredient in the recipe to calculate the costs of 2.25 cups of laundry cost and finally got the cost of doing one load of laundry, assuming 1/8 cup of soap per load: 7.3 cents. Through experimentation, I now know that we can get by with 1/16 cup of soap (or 1 Tablespoon), which is only 3.65 cents per load. With her eye for patterns and her orderly mind, Pamela is brilliant at doing ratios by the way! We also uncovered a gap in her learning which I will fill in down the road: rounding.

Now that Pamela has enough syntax to speak in complete sentences (thanks to the association method), she is working on being able to narrate orally an episode of her life coherently, reflecting on feeling and meaning. One way we do this is by watching a video of the event and making declarative comments while we watch. At first, Pamela struggled because she wanted to get by with power words, rather than full sentences. Because personal pronouns I and you are so confusing, I scaffolded our use of them by pointing and introduced we, which we have not addressed in the association method yet, because Pamela tends to replace we with they in sentences. Pamela did not remember the new vocabulary word grate from the activity, so I heavily spotlighted it while we watched the video. At first, I scaffolded her need for longer processing times by pausing the video. Once she felt competent, I stopped using the remote controller.

The video of us watching and talking about making soap shows how to work on language without heavy doses of prompting, praising, and drilling.

In the video below, Pamela narrates the episode in one shot. She even attached a feeling to the experience: "it was yucky"! I used that as an opportunity to explore other yucky things for her and told her what I found yucky (plastic bags). I came up with meaning for her (even though things are yucky, we can still try).

I typed Pamela's final narration in Word, which reported that it contained 42 words, 5.2 words per sentence, at a 0.7 Flesch-Kincaid Reading Level. Not only that, Pamela sequenced her sentences well, included the two vocabulary words I spotlighted (we and grate) and attached feeling to her narration:
First, we had the soap. Second, we grate the soap. Third, we had the Borax. We poured into the bowl. We put the cup into the box. Then, we helped the baking soda. Then, they stirred the baking soda. It was yucky.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Great American Frontier Show

The kids and I have read through Ambleside Online's Years 1 through 6--almost, for Pamela, that is. When we started doing Relationship Development Intervention, I slowed down her academics so we could spend more time on filling in developmental gaps holding her back in many areas. In spite of a very busy eighteen-hour period, Pamela managed to enjoy a trip down memory lane, recalling our favorite AO books, at the Striped Bass Festival's Great American Frontier Show (whose owners recently moved from New York to Lynchburg, South Carolina).

On Friday night, Pamela and I joined some friends for a middle school production of High School Musical and hit McDonald's for a post-show snack. I am not sure how well Pamela followed the plot of a show we have never seen because it revolved around cliques, prima donnas, underdogs, and back-stabbers, something foreign to her experience. She enjoyed the show and singing her favorite i-Tunes in the car. I loved chatting with my friend Carmen, a fellow mom facing autism, and her adorable daughter. I guess we will find out Pamela's take on the popular Disney show this week when Pamela and I narrate what we did this weekend!

Saturday morning, Pamela offered to join me at the finish line of the 10K run to cheer Steve to the end. Somehow, Steve took a wrong turn and ending up finishing the 5K instead. From what I gather, he was not the only one! His pacing was all wrong for the 5K, so he leisurely stopped to reward Pamela with a peck on the cheek before heading off to get his time. Then, we headed over to our seats (lawn chairs we had strategically placed in a neighbor's yard) to watch the ninety-minute-long parade.

To Pamela, the best of the best of Striped Bass Festival 2009 was the frontier show. We paid a dollar admission each to see the timber wolves (The Call of the Wild), black bears (Gentle Ben and The Bears of Blue River), and cougars (Pa's story about Grandpa in Little House in the Big Woods Book). We did not have a very good view of the show involving these animals, but what I could see by snapping pictures from above the crowd was fascinating.

Pamela loved the petting zoo, getting a little frustrated at the ram who would not eat ("Aw . . . Come on!") and loving the critter who did eat from her hand. Behind the lambs, sheep, rams, and goats were four big creatures on display. Pamela tied memories of books to every single one of them: Texas longhorn (Little House on the Prairie), camel (How the Camel Got Its Hump and Noah's Ark), bison (Tree in the Trail), and donkey (Brighty: Of the Grand Canyon).

Our view of the horses and trick riding was fantastic and memories of our favorite horse books by Marguerite Henry (King of the Wind and Justin Morgan Had a Horse), Little Britches and his trick riding in The Home Ranch, and Pa's and Farmer Boy's teams came to mind! She even remembered the name of Justin Morgan's horse (Bub) from the book we read four years ago. Pamela giggled her way through the warm-up as you can see in the video and photo montage I put together, which we plan to narrate this week.

While the dairy display intrigued her, Pamela was too exhausted to stick around for the milking demonstration at two o'clock. We have learned to respect Pamela's very real need for down time. "Less is more," a crossroad where RDI meets Charlotte Mason, is how we avoid sensory shutdown. We happily headed home and then I sneaked off to the library used book sale where I had the find of a lifetime: seven Tolkien books in practically new condition for only $3.50!

Oh, by the way, have I ever told you I was a geek?

Friday, April 17, 2009

Making Laundry Soap

Since Pamela is working on ratios in math right now, I have been looking for concrete activities to practice these skills. Everyone is either going green or looking to save a few bucks, and the Internet is full of recipes for cheap, green cleaning products. Not only did we make the soap, we measured how many cups of each ingredient per purchase so that we can calculate the unit cost on Monday and do some comparison pricing.

Pamela and I tried this recipe for making dry laundry soap, and we have a load of laundry soaking in 1/4 cup of this concoction. I cannot attest to the quality of the mixture at present:

1 bar of grated soap (I chose Ivory)
1 cup of Borax
1 cup of baking soda

When I studied the video, I realized how many objectives we covered during this activity: measuring dry ingredients, adding, experience sharing, joint attention, life skills, vocabulary, and nonverbal communication. The highlight for me was a ten-second nonverbal conversation between Pamela and me:

I was surfing the net for any good links about nonverbal communication and autism, and a passage explaining the DSM-IV criteria from the book Autism: Understanding the Disorder helped me glimpse the big picture about the strides Pamela is making:
The first criterion [under reciprocal social interaction] is "marked impairment in the use of multiple nonverbal behaviors such as eye-to-eye gaze, facial expression, body postures, and gestures to regulate social interaction." In the area of eye to eye gaze, a person with autism may avoid eye contact or, conversely, may stare so intently into the eyes of his listeners as to make them uncomfortable. With regard to facial expression, a person with autism may display a flat, blunted affect or alternatively may show an inappropriate amount or intensity of laughter or distress. Body postures or gestures may lack nonverbal enhancements such as head nodding, pointing, or the shrugging of shoulders. (pages 21-22)
Let me catalog all of the awesome actions Pamela took to regulate our communication: Pamela turned her head to look where I held my gaze and assumed I wanted her to write something. She picked up the pencil with her right hand, switched it to her left hand, and momentarily leaned in to write. She shifted her gaze to watch me pick up the cup of baking soda. She pointed to the box of baking soda with her right hand, quickly glanced at me, and nodded and raised her eyebrows. She watched me shake my head and grab the baking soda, and she followed my movement with her eye gaze. When I put the box on the table, looked down on it and pointed to it, she glanced at me again, pointed to the cup, nodded, and raised her eyebrows again. She waited for my reaction and, when I pointed to her and then her paper, she turned her attention back to her paper.

And ALL of that took place in about ten seconds!

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Who Moved My Cheese?

Last Saturday, we drove our periodic, 2.5-hour round-trip pilgrimage to Earth Fare for Pamela's specialty gluten-free, casein-free foods. We breezed through the produce and wine section, hitting the gf/cf soy and rice cheese. Disaster happened--somebody moved her cheese, but Pamela did not panic. Since I happened to have my camera (what I really need is a headcam or TIVO in my eyeballs), I filmed how we both handled anxiety. You see, in public settings, I often experience anxiety trying to scaffold Pamela enough to prevent her from melting down. I end up overcompensating by doing a tad too much thinking for her in fear of inadvertently pushing her over her frustration threshold. On top of that, I was manning the camera, trying to focus it on Pamela, while guiding her and hopefully avoiding bumping into a stranger.

Pamela felt worried about the cheese but managed to stay calm and neutral while she picked out soy yogurt and pudding. I asked Pamela if she wanted to try the coconut yogurt (a new product) but she dismissed it for being different. I picked up two for Steve and I (vanilla and mango)--WOW, they tasted fabulously awesome! Pamela grabbed a can of whipped soy cream before looking on the other side of the cheese section. I knew she was starting to fluster mildly because she had difficulty spotting the buttery sticks and said, "I'm a detective!" I suggested she could keep looking or ask for help. She chose the former, and we breezed our way through the meat and refrigerated stuff. Pamela exclaimed loudly, "Looked everywhere." That is when I suggested we ask a storeworker, and, having exhausted all other options, she agreed.

Because Pamela stayed cool under pressure, I thought this moment perfect to spotlight for our work on connecting feelings and meaning to episodic memory. While Pamela had no problems with figuring out feelings, she needed major guiding to derive meaning. When asked for meaning, she talks about emotions. She did think of "searching everywhere" as one strategy when you cannot find something but had a hard time thinking of borrowing the perspective of a person she does not know. Even though she remembered the storeworker when she retold the story, Pamela could not remember the woman's role when thinking about meaning. My strategies were:
  • Give an example of learning from a situation (touching a hot stove).
  • Bring to mind people in the story, so she might learn to think about referencing workers at a store.
  • Focused on what people knew when Pamela suggested anyone other than the storeworker: I did not know where the cheese was. David did not know. Grandpa did not know.
  • Help her think of the situation as a story with main characters who all had roles.
  • Stop the action when she was feeling overwhelmed.
  • Generalize from the woman to a storeworker.

I remembered a book Steve bought called Who Moved My Cheese? by Dr. Spencer Johnson and read it for a lark. The story includes two simplistic mice and two complex little people in a maze who face unexpected change when their cheese disappears. This very short allegory reveals how to handle change successfully. After I finished reading it in about an hour, I thought, "Where's the beef?" While I will jot down all of the insights on handling change before I post it at Paperbackswap, I had deeper questions like "Who is the cheesemaker?" "Did the cheesemaker post wall notes on finding cheese that never runs out?" "Is there more to life than cheese?" "Is there a true cheese that will provide joy in even cheeseless circumstances?" "Can the cheesemaker guide them to the true cheese?" "Is there life after the maze?"

Maybe the Chesterton book is working overtime in my brain!

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Video Killed the Radio Star

Mary treasured all these things, pondering them in her heart. . . Luke 2:19
The Treasure
On the way to a restaurant where I scarfed down some decadent shrimp and grits for Good Friday dinner, the ride in the car was one of those things to treasure and ponder in my heart. I was sitting in the back seat with Pamela, and she started singing Video Killed the Radio Star. One of the new things Pamela has started doing lately is singing for the fun of it! Sometimes, she sings the whole song on her own, but at other times, we echo back and forth (one person taking lead and the other doing the backup vocals). Even though the words are a bit garbled, she delivers the intonation, pitch, and rhythm with spot-on accuracy. This time, she pretended to hold a microphone whenever she sang the male part and then pulled away the mike for the back-up vocals. She even did the instruments in between the vocals. Watching Pamela sing for the sheer joy of it was absolutely priceless!

Today, on the way to the health food store with their grandparents and brother, David recorded Pamela singing for about a minute. On the way home, she sang more songs using an empty single-serving bottle of soy milk as her mike but we were enjoying her singing too much to spoil it by recording her. She sang bits and pieces from "The Hallelujah Chorus," "One-Hundred Bottles of Beer on the Wall," "Over the Meadow and Through the Woods," "Tequilla," "Next Thing You Know (Thirteen)," and "Made to Love"--talk about eclectic:

The Pondering
Singing is dear to my heart because I have been involved in some sort of music, off and on, most of my adult life. From early on, I recognized Pamela's accurate pitch and pleasant voice and pushed her into musical activities. I figured that she had enough ability to get her through rough spots socially. Once we delved into RDI, I understood my mistake of being too instrumental about singing with Pamela. She had skill and ability but completely missed out of the joy of music, what RDI calls experience sharing, which one consultant describes as follows:
Experience sharing involves sharing a part of oneself with a partner. It is the reason we desire and enjoy the company of others. Gutstein concluded that what he had been working on with his patients was an instrumental style of development, and what was being left out was experience sharing. With this understanding Gutstein began to understand autism as a range of neurological disorders that children are born with, which collectively interfere with the type of information processing that makes Experience Sharing so simple for the rest of us. Autistic people are not able to link their own feelings and experiences to the continuing stream of emotional information that surrounds them. This limits both their capacity to perceive others' emotions, and to enjoy and participate with others in a meaningful way, as well as their ability to, think creatively and flexibly.
About eighteen months ago, I let Pamela drop out of all formal music activities and decided to let development and desire dictate when and if to go back to them. She had to work too hard in such settings and never felt completely competent, even though people kindly encouraged her. Lately, her dynamic singing voice has emerged: she sings often for no reason at all. I just love listening to her music waft through the house. Hearing her sing in the car today gave me a preview of what might be in store for her future and I eagerly await it.
For You have been my help, and in the shadow of Your wings I sing for joy. . . Psalms 63:7

Friday, April 10, 2009

MinneSOta--Or What I Have Been Doing Instead of Blogging

Things got really busy after my sister Pam left town. The next day (April 2), David--pictured in what we call the Purple Haze underground tunnel at the airport in Detroit--and I flew to MinneSOta and returned home Sunday night (April 5). I spent the next two-and-a-half days recovering and doing spring cleaning because Steve's parents hit town Wednesday (April 8) and are staying here with us through Monday (April 13).

I met my friend Renee Thursday night, who kindly whisked David off to St. Cloud, where we lived for two cold, but awesome years. I had a quiet night at a very nice hotel with everything from lavender spray for the linens to guarantee a good-night sleep to a white noise CD and a Select Comfort bed--my sleep number is 35 by the way. I slept so well that I almost believe the advertising!

David spent Friday kicking back with his friend Stuart (Renee's son), while Renee, Lisa (another St. Cloud friend), and I attended the MACHE conference, where I made two Charlotte Mason presentations. How did a gal from Carolina end up in MinneSOta? Well . . .

At last June's Charlotte Mason conference, I met a lovely couple from Minnesota who had asked me to speak at the Mache conference: one topic for general audiences on Charlotte Mason and the other topic for special needs parents. I ended up condensing what I presented at last years' CM Conference into two presentations:

The Transforming Power of Relationships and Ideas – Learn how to individualize teaching for your "individual" child through Charlotte Mason’s ideas on narration, thought-life, changing thoughts, fostering problem solving, warm relationships, and imagination. It will include slice-of-life examples drawn from teaching her own typical and atypical children on subjects such as handwriting, language arts, mathematics, art, and life skills. (Excellent for parents of children who struggle to learn.) Handouts are available, and audio should be already available soon (MACHE 2009 St. Paul). Video clips used are as follows:
Talking about Glue
The First Lord's Prayer
The Second Lord's Prayer
Christmas Present
Problem Solving
Goofy Girl Narrates
Program Princess

My Child Is a Person, Not a Disability – Learn how to provide the child with special needs with the right amount of support – without smothering him – by adapting to his developmental level, building mutual trust, framing real-life activities around objectives, and tweaking the amount of support. It will expand Charlotte Mason’s ideas from the previous workshop for parents with special kids. Handouts are available, and audio should be already available soon (MACHE 2009 St. Paul). Video clips used are as follows:
Calm Day
Mental Math
Program Princess

The folks at MACHE were kind enough to schedule both of my presentations on Friday, freeing me up to spend Friday night through Sunday morning in St. Cloud. David and I spent the evening with Eileen and her husband Tom. Unfortunately, the greasy lunch I ate at a landmark spot in St. Paul (Mickey's Diner) did not sit well with me! On the drive to St. Cloud, a killer headache and nausea descended upon me. I could hardly tolerate the crackers and juice Eileen offered me as we caught up on our lives. I figured a good night sleep would restore me back to health. DID NOT! Eileen invited me on a quick trip to the brand new Coburns and I thought I would be okay. WAS NOT. I could barely keep up with her when I suddenly felt flush and dizzy and headed to the front of the store in case I needed a fast exit. When we got back to her place, I sat down on the couch and leaned my head back. Suddenly, a tsunami of nausea hit me, and I ran to the bathroom. It was awful and awesome at the same time. As soon as I hurled, I felt like myself again and managed to choke down a piece of dry toast and Advil. All systems were normal for the rest of the day!

David and I met our friends Heidi and Maxim at the brand-spanking new Great River Regional Library. Heidi gave us the grand tour, and we were very impressed with the coffee shop, the book sorting machine, and the used bookstore. The children's section is larger than the library we have in our rural town in Carolina! The elevator and multiple meeting rooms (with jam-packed schedules) are see-through. We recognized some familiar faces from the many days we spent at the old library, which is nothing but a shell, waiting to be demolished during Minnesota's construction season.

Then, we headed over to the deli where Heidi's daughter works and ate a delicious lunch--my first real meal in over twenty-four hours! Another family of friends showed up and David and I basked in the joy of friendship. We got all caught up on the goings on in St. Cloud before we headed off to to take pictures of our favorite haunts for Pamela. The road construction was absolutely AWFUL--especially the bridge that Minnesota shut down after their whirlwind inspection tour after the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis fell in 2007.

David and I headed back to Renee's Saturday night and spent the evening hanging out with her family. Several things surprised me about St. Cloud. I thought I would be colder, which leads me to conclude that surviving a cold winter in a poorly insulated house is not much different from living in Minnesota! I had forgotten how much I enjoyed meandering conversations with people who read books (I came home with a book on Chesterton), feed birds in their yard, walk everywhere, talk about their faith, etc. Everything looked dull and brown, compared to the glorious colors of the dogwoods, azaleas, wisteria, daffodils, irises, and other things blooming where we live right now.

I showed two of my friends recent video of Pamela, and they helped me understand how far she has come in the past four years! One friend told me the thing she remembered most vividly about Pamela was how she got in these perseverative conversations, and my friend had no idea what she was talking about. It was really hard to engage with her. She saw the videos and marveled at how the stim talk is nearly gone and how well Pamela engages with us, especially the referencing and joint attention. My other friend was ticked to death at all of Pamela's newfound facial expressions and gestures. She could not believe how much Pamela has improved in her ability to communicate through nonverbals!

Overall, we had a blast in MinneSOta! If it weren't so cold there, I would move back in a heartbeat!

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Autism Awareness Day and More Productive Thoughts for Those Living with It Every Day

Any day you read this blog is autism awareness day. But, if having a special day floats your boat, then today is it. Everyone is talking about it (even my favorite Bible study author, Beth Moore), so I guess I will do what I always do: blog about autism! By the way, Pamela made the following picture in honor of April and the Easter eggs on the horizon . . .

Before I update Pamela's progress in facing her anxieties, I thought it cool to share news about a scientific study about why autistic toddlers study mouths instead of eyes. An NIH-funded study figured out that they pay attention to lip-sync (the exact match of lip motion and speech sounds), not gestures and facial expressions. I tracked with what Dr. Ami Klin observed, "Toddlers with autism are missing rich social information imparted by these cues, and this is likely to adversely affect the course of their development." Then, I backtracked, fell over, and let loose a primal scream when I read the thoughts of Dr. Thomas R. Insel, "This line of research holds promise for development of new therapies based on redirecting visual attention in children with these disorders." Clearly, Dr. Insel has not been reading my blog for RDI is an already existing therapy that has helped my daughter--a TEEN--to redirect her visual attention!!!

While she has improved tremendously, Pamela still mildly struggles with Steve's unpredictable work schedule, especially during certain times of the month, if you get my drift. Yesterday, Pamela stunned us all with how well she handled another late departure. Since we are also working on attaching feeling and meaning to episodic memory, I decided to spotlight her calm demeanor this morning!

We all got up early to see my sister and her husband off to Pennsylvania. Steve walked into the room with his running clothes on at 7:00: Pamela was not happy. She tried to bully him into skipping his run. Giving them both a lifeline, I said, "I wonder what time Dad is going to run." Steve promised he would run at 7:55. Her one--and only--angry outburst lasted less than a minute. Steve headed out the door on time.

Pamela had NO MORE MELTDOWNS. She ate oatmeal for breakfast, a neighbor stopped by, and then she took a bath. I knew she would ask about Steve after she got dressed, so I asked him when he planned to leave. He told me 11:00. Sure enough, after her bath, she asked, "What about Dad?" and she did not balk at Steve's promise.

He was not quite ready at 11:00 but told me he was close. He suggested I get his laptop backpack, so I showed it to Pamela and smiled. She nodded and smiled because she knew Steve was packing up to go. She was a very calm and very neutral girl.

To avoid becoming static, we simply talked about our morning. I only wrote down facts that Pamela easily connected to her feelings. She finds it harder to narrate the entire episode coherently and to extract meaning from a sea of details. When accessing episodic memory of emotional experiences it is hard for Pamela to figure out the lesson learned that may become a building block for future experiences. What is more meaningful: seeing Dad leave for a run, eating oatmeal, taking a bath, or staying calm all morning? It all depends . . . meaning is subjective. If Pamela was a picky eater and had never eaten oatmeal in her life, then eating oatmeal would win. Steve runs all the time, so that is nothing new. Pamela loves taking a bath. The feelings she felt in those experiences were more of the same. What made this morning special was Pamela's increased ability to regulate her feelings in a situation that frustrates her. That was different and worth building upon on unpredictable days in the future.

One of the criteria for autism according to the DSM-IV which flows out of the struggle to embrace things that are different. Temple Grandin explains how difficult transitions were for her during her teen and adult years, "The really big challenge for me was making the transition from high school to college. People with autism have tremendous difficulty with change." Another adult with autism, Daniel Hawthorne, observes, "One's environment, with its ever-changing nature, can be very disturbing to the psyche of children with autism."

The most exciting moment of the video of our chat was in the final minute when Pamela said, "The different was difficult." Even though she found Steve's late departure difficult, she managed to stay calm and her victory is what I wanted to spotlight. Since Pamela has been sharing with me little things that seem different to her, I think helping her encode positive memories of being resilient in the face of change will enable her to be even more resilient in the future.