Thursday, January 28, 2010

Watch and Paint in a Small Group

Three years ago, we pulled Pamela out of all small and large group activities. I felt like we were talking ten steps backwards. Common wisdom says that autistic children will eventually learn to socialize if we mainstream, include, and enroll them into group activities. Unfortunately for Pamela, she never seemed to advance beyond heavy-handed guidance, bordering on manipulation, from me. A few months later, she quietly told me that youth group was "too hard" . . .

Why did I pull out the stops? The theory underpinning RDI is that autistic children have an underconnected brain that makes it difficult to pick up social cues needed to succeed in group settings. Some research points to the relationship between a smaller corpus callosum and autism: "Corpus callosum reductions are present in autism and support the aberrant connectivity hypothesis." One news report puts a human face on this hypothesis.

What does this mean? It means that the brain has a difficult time communicating with itself, particularly in problem-solving and picking up social and emotional cues. People with this issue process much more slowly than those who are typical. It's like the difference between traveling country roads and superhighways: Pamela's brain goes at a slower pace and navigates more twists on the road than mine.

RDI approaches underconnectivity by going back to early milestones and slowly focuses on redoing developmental gaps that make social situations difficult. We have spent the past three years working on the foundation for small group activities. After seeing Pamela in the watch and do videos from last week, our consultant thought Pamela ready for small groups. About a day later, a Facebook friend who also has a child with autism posted that she was offering watercolor classes! Pamela loves drawing and painting, so I took it as a strong whisper from God!

Although Pamela did not know her teacher, Carrie, the setting was perfect: quiet with classical music which Pamela loves. The class was small: the students were two adults, a homeschooler, and Pamela. Carrie caught on right away to nonverbals and declarative language as you can see in the video. You can see how comfortable Pamela between her smiles and loving gaze at her paints.

I loved how careful and thoughtful Pamela was. She didn't automatically squeeze a new tube of paint because she noticed the tip needed to be punctured. She looked at what people, usually the teacher or the other girl, were doing before taking the next step. When she needed something, she asked for it. When she was confused, she asked a question. Pamela even made declarative statements from time to time.

Color Strips
The first project focused on becoming familiar with colors. Beginning with yellow, Carrie had them mix the paint and water, draw a line down the paper, and label it with the name written on the tube. Then, she moved the class through this process, color by color, until they had ten parallel stripes, labeled for future reference.

This activity spotlighted Pamela's processing speed. She clearly shifts her attention and takes an action at a much slower pace than her classmates. Had I not been there to scaffold her, she would have bogged down the class. After making two or three stripes, Pamela was familiar with the process and kept up very well. I also noticed that the task shut down completely when she needed something that was not truly essential (switch paintbrushes or get new water). It reminded me of Monk who he gets distracted and cannot function until whatever is bothering him is resolved.

Block and Color Value
This project was a color value study. They studied the lighting of a block, finding the sides that were dark, medium, and light. Then, they drew it and painted it, starting with the dark side and adding more water to lighten the color for the other sides. The teacher also introduced a very important tool for lifting color off the page: a paper towel.

My role was to help Pamela keep pace by doing non-essential things and pointing out what people were doing to help her shift more quickly. I backed out my support whenever she kept up with the class. When the teacher asked questions about light and dark, I gave Pamela more direct support to help her understand what the teacher was saying by thinking of something concrete like shadow and the overhead lights. Rather than tell Pamela what to do or get, I would be vague, "What do you need?" or "What did Carrie draw?" I thought Pamela attended very well to instruction, especially when the teacher had visuals.

Pamela seemed very thoughtful. At one point, she drew a shadow on her box just like we did in Pennsylvania (ten years ago) when we did Draw Squad. Pamela watched both her teacher Carrie and the homeschooler before painting and studied what they had done.

Carrie had two short projects left, but Pamela thought otherwise! She had worked for fifty minutes with one short break. She told me was tired and sat on the couch. I decided to watch the teacher do the next two projects. We have been working on them at home, which will give Pamela a chance to think through what Carrie is teaching at her own pace.

Why did I let her "quit" before the class ended? Trust underpins all good relationships. I trust that Pamela is not trying to cop out, that she really is tired when she says she is tired. She knows she can trust me, that I am not going to push her into the impossible, that I might guide her to the edge of her competency and back out when she's gone too far.

The biggest pain about RDI is filming and editing it. However, doing all that work is worth the effort. In the heat of the moment, I focused on the pace of the class and helping Pamela keep up. I did not realize what a wonderful job Pamela had done in watching and doing what her teacher and classmates were doing until I started editing the clips.

Lessons Learned
  • Position Pamela closer to the teacher and within view of the homeschooler.
  • Give enough support to help her keep pace with the class, especially when learning a new technique.
  • Do non-essential things like closing the paint, pulling out a sheet of paper, pouring clean water, etc.
  • Have plenty of fresh water on hand.
  • Organize paintbrushes by kind since she goes through several during the class.
  • Practice concepts she might not have had time to process at home: adjusting color value with water and lifting off color with a paper towel.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Whatever Happened to David G? Part II

Before I cover the results (or grades--what most people want to know), I wanted to talk about the transition itself. Homeschooling in a rural town with few homeschoolers and people who don't get homeschooling, much less a Charlotte Mason philosophy, was not easy on either of us. Last April, when the opportunity to travel to Minnesota arose, David joined me and spent time with his friends there. We realized how much we missed co-oping with other homeschoolers, talking, hanging out at the park, sharing good books, meeting at the YMCA, etc. I do not miss, however, snow and long winters.

David also attended the Teen Program at the ChildLightUSA Conference in June 2009. He was amazed to meet other teens who had read the same books, who were diverse thinkers, who understood his perspective. They immediately bonded, and he told me that he felt like he had known them all of his life. The program, developed and administered by and for teens, included talks led by a professor about the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, Beatles monopoly games at night, Shakespeare readings (the Pyramus and Thisby scene was a riot from what I heard), Jane Austen tea, nature walks, a musical theory class, a tour of GWU's theatrical department, etc.

One night, a couple of parents dropped in late to hear the Sherlock Holmes reading. We looked at each other puzzled for a few minutes because the tale was much creepier than any of us had recalled. We were relieved with they explained that they had switched at the last moment to Edgar Alan Poe's The Black Cat. The most fun I had was dropping in on their Jane Austen dance lessons (yes, parents were invited). The teens who planned the conference watched Pride and Prejudice so carefully they learned the dances and were able to teach it to others. We practiced for an hour, headed back to the apartments, and dressed as best we could for the impromptu ball. Next June, I think I'll play hooky from being an adult and go to the Teen Conference instead!

The six-week marching band camp that started in July allowed David to make friends before school started. He got to know the building and established a rapport with the band director, who ended up teaching one of David's elective classes (percussion). Because David adjusted well to the discipline of the band, push-ups and all, he developed a reputation for being a respectful student. Since the music they rehearsed did not include electric guitar parts, he enjoyed being able to create his own part. When he wasn't at band camp (five hours a day), he hung out with his cousin Jose, who stayed with us for two weeks before starting college.

Tomorrow, I will wrap things up with the results of David's first semester in school away from home. For now, I will close with an anecdote about what we did on his between semester break. David had a chance to meet up with his ChildLight friends (who keep in touch on Facebook). One played one of the Major-General's daughters in a full-blown, stage production of The Pirates of Penzance. Except for one dearly-missed family from Oklahoma, we were all able to converge on Charlotte and, after the performance, we headed to the star of the show's home. I am not sure what time he went to bed but I know David had a blast getting caught up with his friends.

I have loved Gilbert and Sullivan ever since playing Peep-Bo in The Mikado, and Steve caught the bug after seeing the movie Topsy-Turvy. (He really couldn't help it for it's in his blood. His British grandmother and aunts used to sing in Gilbert and Sullivan productions before his mother left England and met Steve's father in Central America.) We attended a HMS Pinafore concert in which singers wore the costumes, but nothing was staged. The music was great, but it is not the same as seeing whole enchilada: dancing, acting, sets, props, etc. Even Pamela loved Penzance: she loved the pirates and thought the giggling girls (part of every Gilbert and Sullivan production) were hilarious. She laughed at one of the anachronistic gags--the pirates stealing valuables from the Major-General's home managed to cart off a laptop! Pamela loved the plot twist revolving around her favorite topic, leap year.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Whatever Happened to David G? Part I

Since the summer, I have been rather quiet about our son David. Don't let the forced perspective photograph fool you. He was not captured by a giant!

Exactly a year ago, David asked us to attend school away from home. While I was not thrilled at the idea, we realized that he would be seventeen by the time school started in the fall of 2009. He was old enough to make a decision like that. So, we laid down firm guidelines to get him ready for the transition:
  • He took two homeschooling co-operative classes (writing and conversational Spanish) to prepare him for a classroom setting and different teachers. (The reason we have not attended co-ops since we moved here is that it required a 45-minute drive, one-way.)
  • He needed to finish Algebra II and chemistry, his least favorite subjects, without acting like he was walking the Bataan death march.
  • He had to man up on chores around the house and yard work. Prior to this, he dawdled and piddled even when given an agreed-upon wage.
  • Even though he was going into senior year, we wanted him to start as a junior to take off the pressure of having to everything in one year.
  • We would not ever wake him up for school or help him keep track of his stuff. It was his responsibility to know where he had to be, when he had to be there, with the stuff he needed.
I thought those requirements stringent enough to dampen his ardor for school, but David surprised me. We saw a complete change in his attitude, and he showed us more autonomy and discipline than we had ever seen. He whipped through math and chemistry almost at the speed of light. During the summer, we had his eyes checked and he needed glasses (very mild issue unlike his mother who is legally blind without her specs). He saw the dentist and doctor since we would no longer have the luxury of scheduling appointments whenever.

We got him current on the bare minimum shots, and he only needed the MMR. Even though David did not react to vaccinations like his sister did, we were still cautious enough to say no to anything not required. And, boy, did I have to stand up to the nurse. His shot record clearly showed that he had three out of three required HepB at birth, one-month, and two-months of age. Unfortunately, they dated the first one as "at birth." Because the record did not state the actual date, she wanted to redo that. The nurse actually made a long-distance phone call to her supervisor in Columbia to get the okay to approve. Did they understand they were dealing with a Warrior Mom who had survived twenty years in the trenches of autism? I won, of course!

We quickly ruled out the local private school in town. While David was technically born in the south, southern Louisiana is unlike Carolina. He spent most of his life in the land of Yankees, cowboys, Native Alaskan fishermen, and MinneSOta nice. From personal experience, he had already figured out that his gypsy ways and nonconformist thinking would not bode well in a conformity machine of jocks, hunters, preps, and beauty queens. So, we opted for the public school where the population is diverse enough to accept him for the person he is.

We set up an appointment with the principal who runs a tight ship. He gave us a tour of the school and pointed out that block scheduling allows students to carry everything they need in a backpack. After the principal banned lockers, excuses to be roaming the halls melted away and so did forty percent of their disciplinary problems. Although we live in a small town, the school has the same problems as other public schools (occasional fights, gangsta-wanna-bees, and drugs). That worried us a little bit, but we knew that David's strong-will and resistance-to-conformity would be our ace in the hole. He had never been a risk-taker and had shown great respect for authority in following the transition plan we had outlined earlier. By the way, I asked him the other day if he had ever seen a kid pushed through a plate-glass window in a school fight and he had not. Thus, my junior high school was more violent than his high school!

We found a couple of advantages to the plan. Our town has Christian learning centers adjacent to all schools. When parents grant permission, children may take Bible studies for credit (ancient history, for example). He would have access to the vocational school for computer classes and AP classes in his senior year. David has always loved music and our church lacked a forum for his skills on the electric guitar (mainly, self-taught). The school band was the only high school band from our state to march in the inaugural parade last winter. Their hard-working band director had impressed me at community events with the band's musicianship, responsiveness, and discipline. Having sung for many fabulous directors, I recognized someone who had something to teach. Even if David got nothing out of school, he could learn a lot from this man, and maybe even get a band scholarship for college!

We enrolled him in band camp, and he spent six weeks in the heat of a Carolina summer, learning to march, work with other guitarists, etc. Whenever they messed up or disobeyed, the director had them on the ground doing push-ups. Instead of getting annoyed, especially when he had to do push-ups because of someone else's error, he laughed it off. As a veteran of push-ups myself, it did my heart good to see David drop 'em and do twenty at the end of practice!

No, this is not his first day of school! I mightily resisted taking a picture of my "little" boy for his first day of school photo! He wore a t-shirt, jeans, and sneakers like the rest of the kids. That happens to be during Spirit Week in which the juniors dressed for success!

How did he do in his first semester? That is upcoming in this blog series!

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Tear-Free Shoe-Tying Lessons

This time last week, Pamela could not tie her shoes. We have relied upon the goodness of velcro, slip-on shoes, and crocs. I cannot even remember the last attempt we made in teaching this milestone. It's been that long ago. Now, don't start talking about Momheimers--you know when the gray matter in your brain leaks into your hair . . .

Here is a review for those of you who have been lulled into avoiding my blog due to my hibernation last month. Keep in mind we NEVER practiced tying shoes outside of the short lessons described here.

Thursday, January 14, Day One
Pamela tied a shoe with specially colored laces sitting on the table during a ten-minute lesson in which she modeled my actions, step by step.

Friday, January 15, Day Two
Pamela tied a shoe with specially colored laces sitting on the table during a two- minute lesson in which she modeled my actions, step by step.

Weekend, January 16-17
We had nothing to do with tying shoes. Instead, Saturday night, we watched the daughters of Major-General Stanley take off their shoes--and other things--at a production of The Pirates of Penzance in Charlotte, NC. We came home on Sunday and were too exhausted to lift a finger.

Monday, January 18, Day Three
Pamela advanced to tying a shoe with plain white laces by following my lead.

We reviewed tying shoes by guide. First, we sat on the floor, put a shoe with colored laces in our lap, and tied it just as before. Then, we put Pamela's untied shoes on her feet and tied them: she modeled my actions, step by step. Finally, Pamela tied her shoe with only a little bit of scaffolding to help her get back on track when she strayed. Here is the video to prove it:

Monday, January 18, 2010

Watch and . . .

Today we worked on generalizing the watch and do activities.
  • We tried "Level 2" of tying shoes: Pamela tied shoes with white laces that had no special coloring system.
  • David showed Pamela how to build a Lego model. BOTH of my kids were fabulous: David was a terrific guide, very patient and excellent at the slow, nonverbal style of communication. Pamela was a terrific apprentice, knowing that her brother has had years of experience building Lego creations and is the expert Legomaker in the family.
  • Pamela helped me put away dishes, a situation that required gross motor movement as well as watching and doing what I was doing with objects.

Watch and Tie Level 2

Watch and Build

Watch and Put Away

Friday, January 15, 2010

Round Two in Two Minutes

Before tying shoes, Pamela and I threw together ingredients for what I'm calling Sprite Chicken. Yesterday, when I told Pamela what we were making for dinner today, she looked at me oddly and said, "Error!" A friend of mine tried this recipe with her spectrum children and they loved it. I made sure that we each had our own utensils so that Pamela could compare what she was doing to what I was doing. Since she seemed to have a better handle on following me exactly, I did fun little things like sniff the ingredients. Everything is gluten-free, casein-free if you are careful to buy the right brand of soy sauce.

Making Sprite Chicken

For the blow-by-blow account of the developmental milestones Pamela needed to tie a shoe so easily, click here.

Tying a Shoe

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Teaching Pamela to Tie Her Shoe in Ten Minutes or Less!

In RDI, we focus on process, not product. Rather than zooming in on a discrete life skill like tying shoes, we work on social milestones that children need to learn from other people and to form relationships. Today, the goal is to give Pamela opportunities to observe me tying a shoe while she ties the other shoe so that she can compare her actions to mine. If you think about it, "watch and do" (a phrase coined by my consultant) enables children to succeed in small groups. Although Pamela is not in any groups right now because she is not ready, we are working on what she needs to feel competent and resilient in them.

The point of RDI is to help Pamela redo gaps in her social development. The theory is that she can tap into the social parts of her brain by going back to infant milestones and build up. We could have not done "watch and do" three years ago. Pamela had to master other abilities first:
  • Read my body language
  • Pay attention to my sounds
  • Track the movement of people with her eyes
  • Shift eye gaze from one object to another
  • Trust my role as guide
  • Persevere when a task is hard
  • Accept variation
  • Notice the differences between two things
  • Reposition to make two things the same
  • Stay calm and neutral
I had to change the way I interacted too:
  • Slow down
  • Emphasize nonverbal communication
  • Keep verbal communication ("I am the leader" not "Do what I do")
  • Keep Pamela calm and neutral: calm, challenge, calm, challenge, etc.
  • Stay calm and neutral when she is flustered
  • Wait for her to process and think
  • Trust that Pamela is doing her best

The side benefit of RDI is that Pamela ends up learning life skills that I use to frame her social goals. For "watch and do", Pamela and I have the same stuff (we each have a shoe or dishcloth or shirt). We have clearly defined roles: I am the leader and she is the follower. She watches what I do (one step at a time) and tries to copy it exactly. I have been thinking about ordinary things from daily life:
  • Tying shoes
  • Folding clothes
  • Putting together a chicken recipe in the crockpot
  • Building something with Legos
  • Putting away dishes
  • Setting the table
  • Drawing a flower for nature study

Since crocs, slip-on shoes, and velcro are prolific, we have not taught Pamela to tie her shoes. She rarely wears her sneakers. To scaffold her, I colored half of each lace with green permanent marker. It helped her to see exactly how I had positioned the laces. At first, Pamela focused on doing a mirror image rather than using the same hand. It might be because of our difference in hand preference. She also wanted to anticipate me and guess the action before I took the next step. She responded to my nonverbal cues. A couple of times I had to tell her that I was the leader and she was the follower. By the end she was following me well.

AND Pamela tied her shoe.

If you have time to watch in detail, here are some things I kept in mind while trying to adjust my scaffolding:
  • Slow down and be deliberate, even slamming the table helps
  • Make nonverbals when something is not right
  • Fade nonverbals as she grew more confident
  • Do steps slightly differently so she must pay attention
  • Put my hands in my lap for a clear starting point
  • Do something totally unexpected to keep her alert
  • Vary the starting hand because of our hand preferences

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Procrastination at Its Finest!

Last fall, David presented me with a problem he had with Pamela, and a solution. Although he's only seventeen, he knows more about autism than some people and is an awesome brother. One day, he asked if he could borrow her Game Boy and she flatly refused him. He suggested that the three of us (Steve, David, and I) model borrowing in front of Pamela. I brought it up with our RDI consultant, and we picked an objective focusing on episodic memory. Our goal was to give Pamela opportunities to practice borrowing and loaning items, paying attention to feelings.

Off and on, we have been spotlighting borrowing, slowing working from her perspective to ours.
* We looked through old pictures of people sharing with her and talked about how she felt when others shared.
* We looked at pictures of us sharing food with animals (mule deer and birds) and two boys sharing an umbrella. We talked about feelings. We talked about David sharing his legos with Pamela while looking at old picture of him playing with them.
* In the moment of sharing, we talked about her feelings: letting her use my computer and look through pictures kept in a box. Then, David brought down his legos for her to play and we reflected on our mutual feelings.
* I began asking to borrow things from her but did not force her if she strongly objected. In my probing over time, I figured out electronics to be the common denominator! She has a hard time sharing her Game Boy, old TV guides, DVDs, and books having to do with television.

Procrastinating, instead of blogging for most of last month, I figured it was time to share. I am not kidding you about procrastinating as Pamela and I are still finishing up handmade cards for a Christmas card exchange we did with other autistic children. Pamela drew animals, and we brainstormed puns for the greeting. When we first tried this in December, Pamela reacted neutrally. Monday was our third batch of cards, and she laughed her head off at the puns. Then, she came up with her own and laughed at them too!

While making the cards, I worked on borrowing, pushing the envelope all the way to the mother of all borrows: a DVD. She clearly did not like my sneaky ways but did not scold me or react strongly.

What I love most about these two videos is how expressive Pamela is. She speaks both declaratively, sharing what she is doing. Her laugh is engaging and sweet.