Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Wordless Wednesday: Looking Forward to Easter

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

I Want Wine!

Pamela turned 21 on March 23, and she's already begging for wine! We almost had a riot over the weekend. She whined, "I want wine", in front of a bunch of church people too. And, boy, did we get a lot of stares!

. . .

. . .

. . .

I left out a lot of context in that story. If you are the parent of an autistic child, I can almost guarantee how you filled in the blanks. Our brains automatically guess missing information based on prior experience and background knowledge. When you lack both, you come to the wrong conclusion, which is why our children have problems in social situations. And now, for the rest of the story . . .

Last Sunday, Palm Sunday, our church celebrated communion, something it does once a quarter, except for special days like next Thursday, Maundy Thursday. Every denomination has its own policy about who should take communion. We have never investigated the issue because Pamela has never shown an interest--until Sunday, the most crowded service since Christmas! Fortunately, we have been attending church for over a year now and recently became members. Everybody knows us and knows about our journey with autism: I sing in the choir, David is so tall you can't miss him, Steve is on the Youth Advisory Committee, and I spoke on autism at the monthly luncheon last October. They love Pamela, and people get so excited when she talks to them as if it were a great honor bestowed by the Queen Bee herself.

These situations usually embarass David, but this time it was so funny that he got the giggles. Then, I caught the giggles. The choir director glanced over after the second plea for wine, thought "Give the girl some wine", and started giggling when she saw David and I smothering our laughter. The people behind us started chuckling too as I tried to explain to Pamela that we have to talk to the pastor about it. Then, she changed her tune, "Permission! Permission!" Our uncontrolled mirth was so scandalous and thankfully sitting near the back prevented dirty looks for those ignorant of our dilemma.

Pamela calmed down, and we escaped a full-blown meltdown. Now I'm seeking information from a church in our denomination with a special needs ministry.

By the way, our church serves grape juice, not wine! Imagine how she would have reacted had we given her grape juice.

Never mind! I don't want to go there!

Monday, March 29, 2010

Chit-Chattin' 'bout Collards

Recommending that a parent of an autistic child try Nothing sounds like heresy. There is also great danger in doing too much. Understood Betsy is a classic, but fairly unknown gem--enjoyed by children and adults alike--that beautifully illustrates the pitfalls of doing too much and the power of Nothing. This book ought to be required reading for every teacher and parent.

What do I mean by Nothing? "Silence, waiting, giving the child time and simply observing the child carefully."

Let me give you an example of how this looks. A few years ago, I would think of everything Pamela needed to know and tell her, which left her very little to ask.

Me: "Pamela, I'm going to Oma's house to pick up some collards. I know you don't like collards, but I love them. I'll be back in five minutes."
Pamela: "Okay."

Think about how unbalanced my actions were: Mom (27 words) versus Pamela (1 word). I left her absolutely no "scope for the imagination" (to quote one of my favorite literary characters). I discouraged Pamela from interacting. I had done all the thinking. What was there left to ask? I did not give her a chance to be a partner in the conversation because I assumed she couldn't, which was correct because years of doing too much prevented her from learning. I left no reason to initiate; I did not invite her to respond.

The other day, this is how the deal went down. I gave David the details of where I was going and what I was doing and skipped out of the house while Pamela was upstairs. Not knowing where I was going peaked her interest. After I came home, I put the warm collards on the counter and walked into the room where Pamela was and read a book.

Pamela: "Where d'you go?"
Me: "Oma's house."

I do not correct her sloppy English nor do I give her too much information. I leave her wanting more.

Pamela: "What do you get?"
Me: [I smile mysteriously.] "I got something."

I walk to the kitchen, and she follows out of curiousity. Once there, I pick up the yogurt container and hold it.

Me: "Mmmmmmm . . . it smells good."
Pamela: "What's that?"

I raise the container just out of her eye level and pop the lid, so we can sniff it.

Pamela: "Is it beans?"
Me: "No, it's collards!"

I can see she's not sure of what I meant. I position the container, so she can see them too. She wrinkled her nose and made a face.

Pamela: "I don't like it."
Me: "That's okay. I love collards."

She looks at me in disgust.

Me: "Dad likes collards. What about David?"
Pamela: "Yuck! David don't like it."
Me: "You're right! David doesn't like it."

I model correct English in a subtle way without forcing her to repeat after me.

Now, go back and read through this conversation that really happened. Look at how balanced our words were. She said about as much as I said. She was an equal partner who did not require prompting from me. She enjoyed being in the conversation because her role was as important as mine. She walked away pleased with me because she was not manipulated or controlled. She was pleased with herself because she held her own.

A feeling of competency and confidence is the emotion glue that causes positive experiences like that to stick in her mind. As each experience builds one upon the other, she feels more able to be a true partner. She finds people just a little more understandable. She finds herself just a little more capable. She feels more relaxed in a social situation, which enables her to express herself more easily.

Did you catch how Nothing works? Here is a wonderful outline by Dr. James MacDonald, author of Communicating Partners:
  • Wait silently for the child to start an interaction.
  • Respond briefly, then wait again.
  • Wait with a look of anticipation.
  • Do one thing then wait for your child to take a turn.
  • Play in a back and forth way, each doing about the same amount.
  • Wait when you think he can do more.
And, if you want to know more about Nothing, click here.

The parents in our RDI discussion group tried an experiment that illustrated Nothing beautifully. We did a picture study in two ways. First, we studied the picture for a few minutes, I turned it around, and I drilled them with questions. One parent objected immediately, her interest shrivelling into a little ball, "But, I wasn't looking at the details!" Another, whom I know to have a sharp eye for details, incorrectly answered some of my nit-picky, completely pointless questions. Had I not projected a sense of humor about the whole thing, I could have ticked off two good friends! Then, we repeated the process but this time had a conversation about the painting, volcanoes, spring, El Salvador, and architecture. What do you think got stored into our long-term memories, the number of hills or the impression of life in a Salvadoran village?

After reading about doing Nothing, one of the parents said mysteriously, "That got me thinking . . ."

That's we all should do . . . get thinking and let our kids do likewise!

Friday, March 26, 2010

A Tale of Two Teachers

A couple of friends and I have been gathering every other week to read through The RDI Book. To spotlight the affect that emotions have on our episodic memory, I shared a true story about two of my ninth-grade teachers: one tried to teach me to do art and the other taught me to enjoy art and live a full life.

The first was THE art teacher whose name I have forgotten. All I remember was her scowling at those evil clods who did not get art. Since her art did not pay, she made sure we all paid for it every bloody moment of her class. The few gifted enough to earn her smiles never understood why the kids who drew stick figures despised her. I will leave it to you to discern into which category I fell. The lasting impression I carry around in my mind of her is a dried-up grump with a scrunchy, Mr. MaGoo face and a black beret cocked to the side. Whether or not it is accurate, that picture is the caricature she became in my mind.

Then, there was Mr. P, our English teacher who also taught humanities on the side. Our school, a K-12 school on a small American Navy base in Newfoundland, Canada, had only twenty-eight students in the 7th through 12th grades. He could tell that the other new student and I seemed nervous on our first day of high school in an unfamiliar place. He welcomed us and called us to the front desk. He said he could tell from our records that we were pretty girls and, winking at two other girls in the class, added, "Not like those dingbats over there."

We relaxed right away, and then he told us about the chair. It was an ugly, old, Navy-issue, sage-green upholstery chair. He pointed to it and said students could take turns reading in it. He gave us pens and explained that any time we wanted we could doodle, draw, or write on it. That chair was so special nobody ever dreamed of leaving profanity. People sat there during class and even during lunch.

Mr. P loved people. Whenever elementary school kids walked by on the way to the library, he would herd us into the hall and we would wave at and greet all the little kids. Every child in our school knew Mr. P and he knew everyone of them by name. He gave many of them affectionate nicknames like "The Terror of Ten Hundred". He coached the basketball team and chaperoned many of the activities: the fishing derby, camping trips, dances, etc.

The first book he assigned was The Hobbit. That year, I fell in love with fantasy and have gone on to read The Lord of the Rings, C. S. Lewis, George MacDonald, and others in that genre. Mr. P had an ulterior motive for it. As you can imagine, the weather in Newfoundland was dreary as dreary could be. Fog. Wind. Fog. Rain. Fog. Mist. Fog. Snow. Fog. Sleet. Fog. Slush. Oh, yeah, and fog. Mr. P had lived there long enough to know that before the end of the school year would come a glorious day, full of sunshine, in which even he could do nothing to snag our attention. On that day, he told us to put away the books because we were all going out hobbit-hunting. We happily strolled out to the docks, where no hobbit in his right mind would be.

He also taught us humanities. He spent part of the class flipping through a slide show of artwork. He paused on a picture and we talked about everything from the details we noticed to the connections we made and the feelings we felt. The warm memories of those slide shows got us through studying for the written tests. We learned from him what the professional art teacher never managed to convey: an appreciation for the beauty and originality and preciousness of art.

Before we graduated, Mr. P taught us his last lesson. For many of us, it was the first lesson of its kind. After school, he often went running with some guys. On the Thursday before Spring Break, he ran as usual, felt a little faint, and sat in the chair. His heart, which had an undetected murmur, gave out and he died. While the shock of losing him so suddenly hit us all in the gut, we slowly began to realize we were all with him when he died. Every student who had sat in that chair and made their mark on the upholstery waved goodbye to him as he headed off to the happy, hobbit-hunting grounds.

Mr. P taught us many things that cannot be measured in this No Child Left Untested world. He taught us how to learn, how to live, and how to die. He understood the power of relationships. His warmth, encouragement, and exuberance was the emotional glue that gave us lasting memories of the books we shared and the art we enjoyed.

I always tear up when I share this story with people, which even made it to an anthology ("Goodbye, Mr. P"). One of the parents in our little group reflected on the results of prompting and correcting a child with autism all of the time. You end up angry and tired. Is that really what you want them to code into their memories of their relationship with you?

"What is a parent to do?" you ask.

I suggest you do Nothing, a corollary to Charlotte Mason's mantra ("Whereby teachers shall teach less and scholars shall learn more"). If you have no idea of the power of Nothing, click here. This little gem is worthy of your refrigerator and bathroom mirror.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Comfort of Cattails

Pamela is clearly more receptive to people in her watercolor class. She is looking forward to sharing cake and ice cream to celebrate her 21st birthday next Tuesday. She even sang a little snippet of the Beatles' "Today Is Your Birthday" song.

The class did two things: finished the spring landscape from two weeks ago and started a Barbados beach landscape. After a slow start in mixing colors, Pamela managed to keep up and even stay ahead of her teacher because she wanted to get to the fun part: painting! She breezed her way through drawing the beach scene after having had years of practices imitating Steve Burns drawing in his handy-dandy notebook.

The biggest trend I saw was how well she regulated her emotions. Steve called unexpectedly (I never get cell phone calls), and Pamela asked where he was. Several tubes of paint had crusted-on caps, so she asked for help. The spray bottle, which had a mind of its own, spewed its cap into the paint, and she took it well. I sprayed water on the table, and Pamela grabbed a paper towel and cleaned it up. Instead of painting the second picture with the paper set to "landscape" her teacher had them position their paper to "portrait" and Pamela didn't even blink.

The first video shows Pamela finishing her spring landscape, which turned out gorgeous. The highlight for me was how well Pamela regulated herself during an unexpected change of mind by her teacher. Carrie knows how to scaffold the students and models her thought processes beautifully. She was going to shift to painting red flowers and had already gotten them started on mixing the paints. She revised her strategy and guided the class back to green leaves. Suddenly, she realized that Pamela was autistic (it is easy to forget because Pamela is doing so well). Carrie looked at me half-apologetically, knowing what unexpected transitions can do since she also parents a child in the spectrum.

Pamela did not catch onto the change right away and happily mixed her red. Once she caught wind of the shift, she mildly fussed. I guided her more directly since a pending meltdown and thinking clearly are mutually exclusive. I told her she could paint the leaves or wait. She felt like arguing and even said, "Argue." Suddenly, she started painting brown blobs that looked like cattails. I wonder if she recalled the cattail study we did last summer and consoled herself by painting them instead!

Pamela's new painting is looking gorgeous too. She loves bold colors which make her pictures pop. My favorite moments of this video was when Pamela wanted to know the island's name (and we plan to look up Barbados in her beloved atlas). I also enjoyed watching Pamela solve a problem. She accidentally colored her white foam the color of sand and then tried blotting it. Since it did not sop up enough water and this was nearing the end of the hour, I quickly collaborated with her and I drew a new line in the sand.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Dust Bunnies, Faceblindness and Other Stuff

Sow an act, reap a habit; sow a habit, reap a character; a character, reap a destiny. Hat tip: Charlotte Mason
My ears perked up at Bible study today when Jennifer Rothschild shared these words, often quoted by Charlotte Mason. Charlotte Mason backed up a step on this popular quote in her day. "'Sow an act,' we are told, 'reap a habit.' 'Sow a habit, reap a character.' But we must go a step further back, we must sow the idea or notion which makes the act worth while." The role of parents--and all good teachers--is to sow ideas.

Last week, our seventeen-year-old son David gave me a great example. We left him home alone during our cruise. He wasn't truly alone for he had two dogs, a parakeet, and three fish to keep him company. When he wasn't caring for the menagerie, he was either attending school or checking in with my folks who live across the street. We left him with very few instructions: we asked him to take care of the pets and check in with his grandparents once a day. We gave him no curfew. We made no rules about illicit parties. Since he has never given us a reason to doubt his judgment, we thought it unnecessary.

He surprised us when we came home.

It took me about a day to figure out what he had been up to. We got home Tuesday night, and I spent Wednesday catching up and doing laundry. On Thursday, I cleaned the house to prepare for a visit from friends the next day. As I dusted, I noticed something very strange. THERE WAS NO DUST! None in the dining room, living room, or office. The downstairs bathroom looked suspiciously clean. I couldn't find any dust bunnies sleeping in the corners either.

Then, I realized what David had been doing when he wasn't getting screen time, studying, banging on the drums, or playing his guitar! We never told him to clean. We never offered to pay him. When he came home from school, I asked him why. He told me that he always sees me cleaning before Dad returns from a business trip. He knows it makes his dad feel comfortable . . .

Through RDI, we are doing the same thing with Pamela: sowing ideas, hoping some will take root, and waiting to see what sprouts. Today, I reaped a bumper crop of fruit.

Many people with autism struggle with face blindness. While she has no problem recognizing people she knows well, she struggles when she sees a familiar face in the wrong place. If she does not recognize someone right away, I usually let her know where we normally see the individual. Today, at watercolor class, the mother of the homeschooler gave me hope that Pamela is making progress on this front.

I usually sit up front with the choir during the first half of our church service. Last Sunday, my friend and her family sat in the same pew as my crew. Pamela slid into the pew next to her classmate, followed by David and Steve. She glanced over and the wheels began to turn. My friend, who understood that one of our goals is to let Pamela think for herself, waved and said, "Hi! Pamela!" She gave her absolutely no clue about where they usually see each other. Her daughter waved and greeted Pamela too.

Then, Pamela did the most amazing thing for someone who struggles with faceblindness. She waved back and said, "Hi, Abbie!" SHE REMEMBERED! I was almost in tears as my friend was relating this story to me.

Now, if that wasn't enough to fill my heart with treasure, five minutes later, Pamela wowed me again.

Her teacher introduced the new student in the class. She waved to us and said, "I'm Susan from G_____ville!" I could tell Pamela hadn't caught that. Knowing of her interest in towns that end in ville, I pointed to Susan and said, "This is Susan. She is from G_____ville." Again, the wheels began turning in Pamela's head. She suddenly realized she had no idea where anybody in the class lived. She pointed to Lisa very clearly and decisively and said, "Where do you live?" Lisa smiled and answered, "S_____ton." She pointed to Abbie, asked the same question, and got the same answer. Pamela turned to her teacher and repeated her query. Carrie said, "I live in S_____ton too. Where do you live?" Pamela told her.

What strikes me the most about both of these situations is Pamela's inner motivation. Often the emphasis in the autism world is to prompt ASD children into learning the social graces before people are on their radar screen. That seems backward to me. A child who is interested in people will need much less direct teaching and prompting because "the idea or notion which makes the act worth while" has already sprouted. In Pamela's case, she first became interested in paying attention to us with the help of RDI. As she began to understand us better, she became interested in paying attention to other people. As she begins to understand people better, she has the inner motivation to interact with others, ask meaningful questions, and have short conversations without being prodded.

One good Bible study leads to another. So, I will close with a quote from The Prodigal God by Tim Keller, a book that has rocked my world. Deepening our understanding, not rules, is what relationships are all about!
What makes you faithful or generous is not just a redoubled effort to follow moral rules. Rather, all change comes from deepening your understanding of the salvation of Christ and living out of the changes that understanding creates in your heart. Faith in the gospel restructures our motivations, our self-understanding, our identity, and our view of the world. Behavioral compliance to rules without heart-change will be superficial and fleeting.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Don't Talk about that Future!

Pamela does not like when we talk about the future, especially the time when David goes to college. She thinks of herself as a big girl (which is quite accurate) and asks me if she can still play with her babies when she is 21 (next week, as a matter of fact). She corrects me when I order four adult tickets for the family at the movies.

We consider Pamela a very late bloomer. We have guardianship and, at present, Steve's insurance covers her medical needs (which are few since she is healthy and not taking any medications). Because she is still making progress in many areas of her development, we are not guiding her to transition into the work world because she is not ready.

Employment is a huge issue for even the most high-functioning people in the autism spectrum. "Only 15 per cent of autistic individuals in full-time employment" in the U.K. (hat tip: Kathy Darrow). An acquaintance of mine bought a farm recently and hired a young man in the spectrum, who has a master's degree in his field, but has gotten fired from one job after another. Often, the issue is not knowledge, ability, or I.Q. but dynamic thinking and the ability to work with people. While folks in the computer industry and arts tolerate the quirks of autism, the rest of the world is not so forgiving.

I applaud families like the Nunns who have encouraged their autistic son Dustin to follow his dream to publish his own cartoon book. They helped him build a website featuring his finished product and put up homemade commercials on You-Tube (Hat Tip: Bonnie). Their creativity and determination inspire me!

I worry a lot less about these statistics than I used to because we are finally seeing Pamela think more flexibly. For years, she wrote lists of movies, categorized by dates, leaving a paper trail a mile thick. The other day I found the most delightful thing. Pamela wrote her first list of movies BY THEME!

Peeps! This is big!!!!! But, that's not all. Today, we were rating our favorite composers in Spanish.

Me: "Mozart es numero uno."

Pamela: "Mozart es numero dos."

Me: "Es Tchaikovsky numero uno?"

Pamela: "Si."

Me: "What's Bach?"

Pamela: "Numero dos."

Me: "You mean, Bach and Mozart are both numero dos?"

Pamela: "Yes."

I was so excited to know that Pamela was flexible enough to consider a tie!

Two years ago, Pamela attended Winter Jam, the place least likely to attract a person in the autism spectrum: a very loud, contemporary Christian rock concert. She skipped last year but asked to go again this year. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending upon one's perspective), our youth group sent an advance scout party to score good seats for us. I swear my ears rang for a week afterwards! The volume did not deter Pamela: when her fingers grew tired, she tried out ear plugs: for the first time EVER!

A couple of times, I worried about Pamela melting down. We were hungry, so I went to get a burger (bunless for her) and fries. She stayed with the youth group, while I got the food. After she finished her food and drank about half of her soda, I accidentally knocked it over. To my shock (and delight), she took it in stride and did not even fuss. Years ago, this would have meant a meltdown or a trip to the concession stand to prevent one. Then, intermission took way too long and Pamela was ready to head home. Since we depended upon the youth group for transportation, we could not leave. I gave her the option to walk outside and wait until the concert was over. Pamela quietly fussed her way through her decision-making. Trust me, I would have happily headed out for the music was loud, but she chose to stay for the whole thing.

Recently, I came across this blog post that listed the big three skills that individuals with autism should master. It ought to be renamed three STATIC skills. What about the big three dynamic skills that would give the most bang for their buck in the work world? Good enough thinking, multi-channel communication and emotional regulation? Fuzzy logic, collaborating, and resilience? Hmmm . . . thinking back to Pamela's weekend with her Oma and Opa, I would say that alternative thinking, perspective taking, and emotional regulation greased the skids for my parents.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Anchors Aweigh!

"Raising a child with ASD is like being a blind captain of a sailing ship with a deaf crew." Dr. Steve Gutstein

Steve and I recently did something we have not done since 1994: vacationed without the children! In fact, the 1994 trip to Las Vegas does not really count because we were attending an autism convention and chose to sit at evening talks instead of slot machines. So, the last time we went somewhere together overnight without kids was when we were, well, without kids! Pathetic, huh? Stories like that are quite common in the autism world because it really is hard to find the right people to understand and take care of our kids. It is no wonder the divorce rate is so high.

Since we moved across the street from my parents, they have spent enough time with Pamela for her to be comfortable with them and vice versa. Over the years, my mother, a fabulous cook, has learned the intricacies of Pamela's diet. She has observed how I help Pamela stay calm and regulated and how I guide Pamela's thinking by applying the principles of RDI. Pamela has become better able to express herself and converse with others. I have taken trips to North Carolina and Minnesota while Pamela stayed at my parents' house. With Steve at work, Mom could always reach him if Pamela threw her a curveball.

Last Friday, we woke up in the wee hours of the morning and drove to Miami to board Majesty of the Seas for our first cruise on a white ship (as former naval officers, we have done plenty of time haze grey and underway).

Pamela stayed with my parents, and she accompanied them on a trip to Charleston with Mom's quilting group. My dad drove the bus. While he parked, Pamela and Mom's friends walked into the auditorium. She took one look at the dazzling array of quilts and little old ladies and was ready to head back home. Dad cannot stand more than five minutes either, so Pamela, Dad, and Elvira (their white standard poodle) cruised the cobblestone streets of Charleston. She chatted with my dad a little to learn the schedule and patiently waited until two o'clock before they finally ate. When she grew tired of walking, they went back to the bus and sat for awhile.

After lunch, the ladies went shopping and Pamela protested, "I want to go home!" She had had enough! My mother quietly explained to her that the ladies never go to Charleston because it is too far away. She promised them a shopping trip, and the ladies would feel so sad if they canceled it. Pamela listened carefully and said, "Okay!"

Pamela referenced my mother for emotional regulation again when their church youth programs coordinator picked up a television donated by my parents. She saw some strange woman hauling off the TV and protested, "No! No! No! That's not yours! It belongs upstairs!" Then, Mom explained, "Pamela, we have too many televisions: the kitchen, parlor, quilt room, television room, and the RV. We don't need it anymore!" Pamela calmed down and said, "Okay!"

Mom noticed Pamela was spending an inordinate amount of time watching programmed television. Indulging in her favorite shows is understandable since we pulled the plugged on cable last May. Mom told her she was watching too much television and needed to get outside for awhile. Pamela protested, of course, but, after the show ended, she put on her shoes and headed outdoors. Then, Mom gave her a tour of their new RV. Pamela loved it so much that she spent part of her day sitting in the back room of the RV for a change of pace.

Pamela's morning routine at my parents' house included taking a bath. Because the tub is upstairs, my mother works up there to make sure nothing floods. Pamela has never had a problem, but Mom didn't want to risk it. Mom had to run errands Monday morning, so she told Pamela she could not bathe until after lunch. Pamela understood and happily adjusted to the new schedule. As soon as they finished lunch, Pamela said, "I want to take a bath!"

Overall, Mom and Dad thoroughly enjoyed having Pamela stay with them and found her to be no trouble at all. While Pamela enjoyed knowing the schedule of the day, she stayed flexible, too. They noticed she had far fewer anxieties and stay much more regulated than in previous stays with them. When she started to get riled up, Mom kept her calm by giving her more information. Even better, Mom was amazed at Pamela's improved ability to have give and take conversations about a wide variety of topics.

What We Did on the Cruise

Thursday, March 11, 2010


Momheimers is an advanced condition of motherhood caused by the gray matter seeping out of the brain and altering the color of the hair. I must be in the early stages of Momheimers between having enough gray hairs to leave a bald spot if yanked and doing a couple of doofy things this past week!

It all started a week ago Sunday. Steve and I recently became members of the church to which we switched in February 2009. The pastor planned to welcome us at the service. Before I left for choir practice, David and Pamela were ready and Steve was in the shower--all systems were go for an on-time church arrival.

The choir sits in the front of the sanctuary, so, when we take our seats, I usually look for my family. To my great shock, they were not in the usual spot. I craned my neck and strained my eyes but still could not see them! I could not imagine why they were so late on such an important day.

The pastor launched into the announcements and got around to recognizing the new members. He did not see my family, and, since Steve travels often, he asked me if Steve would be attending church. I shrugged my shoulders and said, "He's supposed to!" which drew a titter from the congregation. I racked my brains trying to figure out why he was uncharacteristically late. I figured that one of his bosses from earthquake-stricken Chile had him on the phone, so I stopped worrying.

After the choir left the sanctuary to sit in the pews, I grabbed my purse and suddenly realized, I HAD TAKEN BOTH SETS OF KEYS! After I finished laughing at my own expense, I showed everyone the keys to exonerate poor Steve. I was so thankful I had assumed he had a legitimate reason for not showing up and did not fume my way through the service.

I knew the lost keys probably upset Pamela, so I brought home the children's bulletin which she enjoys filling out. She read the title, "Jesus Is Sad about Jerusalem," and said, "Just like Pamela and the lost keys." What a clever segue into expressing her feelings!

Our faulty intersubjectivity (shared perspective on the situation) could have caused me to blow up at Steve for blowing off church. Missing important information leads to judgmental attitudes like the people in these funny commercials about a man in the hospital and a man cooking dinner. A few days later, I hurt Pamela's feelings for this reason!

Steve saw the outer wrapper of a package of bacon in the trash. Pamela sometimes microwaves herself a couple of pieces of bacon for breakfast. He grew alarmed because we bought the bacon the night before. For some strange reason, he assumed she had eaten an entire package of bacon for breakfast. He asked me to have a talk with her.

I should have investigated this more carefully, but I was multi-tasking with some hard deadlines. I should have reflected that Pamela leaves half of her French fries when full. She gives me the rest of her Skittles when she's had enough. I should have realized the sudden change in behavior made no sense and asked her what she ate for breakfast. I should have checked the trash can myself.

But, I did not.

I said, "Pamela, you ate too much bacon for breakfast. Eating too much bacon will make you fat."

Pamela completely understood what I meant and started crying, "Fat like Homer Simpson. No more bacon!"

I had not expected such a strong reaction! I consoled her, "You can have two pieces of bacon. Two pieces are fine."

She stopped crying and said, "Two, not three."

Suddenly, I realized I was operating under a faulty premise. I headed to the kitchen and saw the outer layer of the packaging in the trash. Where was the inner wrapper? In the refrigerator, of course! Pamela had eaten only three pieces of bacon for breakfast and put the rest back in the refrigerator.

Boy, did I feel like a chump!

There was a silver lining in this breakdown of intersubjectivity. Pamela expressed herself well enough to revise my understanding. Three years ago, she could not have done that!

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Springing for Spring

Two Hot Watercolor Tips
Before delving into last week's lesson, I'd like to share some hot tips. Pamela struggled with preparing her paints because (1) she lost paint by leaving blobs of it on her paintbrush when dipping it into the clean water and (2) it took her forever to mix paints. Her teacher suggested we bring in a spray bottle full of clean water to make the mixing go faster. Pamela caught on right away and prefers spraying to dribbling. WARNING: be careful of your aim and distance for you might splash paint onto your paper.

Another neat trick is to tape the paper to a board (we're are using a cutting board). The masking tape keeps your paper secure, which is very helpful when you are in a hurry drying it with a hair dryer. Once you carefully remove the tape (to avoid ripping the paper), you leave behind a pretty white border.

For homework, Pamela finished her barn and painted a Baltimore oriole. I hoped to lengthen her stamina with two long projects. As I suspected, she wanted to quit after finishing the barn. With a dash of warm encouragement, Pamela painted the bird, which looks fluffy because of her heavy hand with water.

Spotlighting Dynamic Thinking
When we arrived at the art gallery, I grew concerned about two issues. Two women were working in the shop, taking down paintings, and speaking very loudly. Pamela managed beautifully and her brain functioned well enough to filter out unexpected distrations. Pamela was not in the mood to paint and told me she was going to do zero projects. Since her protest was mildly half-hearted, I got everything set up while she relaxed on the couch. With a little bit of gentle coaxing, Pamela joined the class at the tables.

Pamela is better at keeping up with the class in mixing paints, and you can see how much she loves that spray bottle in the videos below. She had several nice moments with her teacher, who is awesome at nonverbal communication, thinking of concrete ways to describe something, and gives Pamela time to shift attention and process what she is saying.

Awhile back, a reader commented that Pamela is merely doing mimicry. Our focus is not mindless copying. We place great value in her ability to watch, think, and do. Here are some examples of her dynamic thinking in action:
  • After she drew her hills, she erased them because she tends to make dark lines. At home, we erase our lines. Ironically, her teacher watched Pamela erase and she too decided to erase them! The teacher references the student--how fun is that?
  • The teacher has been guiding the class in creating white space (in the unfinished spring landscape pictured above: the band of trees between the sky and ground, the bands at the bottom of the page, and the band between the two hills). The space prevents two colors from blurring together and leaves room for another element. Pamela usually follows along, but, for some reason, she was determined to color the band all the way to the bottom. I backed off because she emphatically put her foot down!
  • Her teacher introduced a new idea: to give the grass some "blonde highlights" with the already-laid yellow, she suggested making marks with a white crayon to resist the green. Pamela could not understand why that insane teacher was insisting on having them made white grass. Clearly, this moment was a breakdown in theory of mind! Again, I backed down, knowing that she did not see her teacher's point.
  • Pamela added a river, which her teacher did not have. Carrie made the white space so that the two colors would not bleed. Pamela was adamant about turning that into a river. It is her creativity and work after all!
  • Several times Pamela asked questions or asked for him (some not on the clips): confirm the wet wash for the sky, open the spray bottle, confirm what I meant about hanging up her picture, open a new tube of color, etc.

Highlight of the Day
Pamela covered the left-side of her paper with yellow, all the way to the bottom of the page. I made a couple of comments and realized she had her own agenda. The mark of a good guide is picking the right battles. I felt validated when Pamela painted a lighter shade of yellow on the right side. She painted all the way to the bottom of the page again, but, this time, I remained silent. Suddenly, and on her own, she noticed that her teacher had white space on that part of the painting. Pamela grabbed a paper towel and sucked up most of the paint!

Mindless mimicry or thoughtful apprenticeship, what say you?

Monday, March 01, 2010

Howard Be Thy Name

In the past few years, Pamela has slowly started to understand a variety of styles of humor. Today's example is the verbal pun. Pamela has been stimming on the Lord's Prayer and the Doxology lately. Now, don't get me wrong. I'd much rather her stim on something innocuous instead of George Carlin's "Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television."

To avoid making Pamela feel incompetent, we seek playfully ways to turn it into a conversation. This morning, Steve struck gold!

Pamela: [For the fifth time.] "Our Father, who art in Heaven . . ." [Waiting for one of us to recite the script]

Steve: "Howard be Thy name."

Pamela: [Loud giggle.]

Steve: "Our Father, who art in Heaven, Howard by Thy name."

Pamela: [Another loud giggle.]

Steve: "What? Howard be Thy name."

Tammy: "Nooooo! Howard be Opa's name."

Pamela: [Piercing shriek followed by a giggle.]

Tammy: "Is God's name Howard?"

Pamela: "No! It's Hallowed."

Tammy: "Do you know what hallowed means?"

Pamela: "Means? Means?" [She is asking me to tell her.]

Tammy: "Hallowed means holy. We love God's name because He is God."

Getting puns spotlights Pamela's level of auditory processing because ears are the source of the humor. Puns depend upon either homophones or words that sound nearly the same (hallowed sounding a lot like Howard). The humor involves changing a word in a sentence for another one that sounds the same but means something different. "Why was ten scared? Because seven ate nine." Puns also depend upon context. Steve could have used either Harold or Howard. He chose the latter because Pamela had the context that Howard is a name (her grandfather) and she doesn't know anyone named Harold.

People either love or hate puns, or paronomasia. William Shakespeare laced his plays with thousands of them. Mercutio, knowing was he was about to die in Romeo and Juliet, said, "If you look for me tomorrow you will find I am a grave man." Over a century later, Samuel Johnson, author of the dictionary, defined puns as "the lowest form of humor." Judging by the expression on his face in this painting by Joshua Reynolds, I question whether or not he actually had a sense of humor! Some scientists are doing some fascinating research into this love-hate relationship with puns.

Puns often confuse children in the autism spectrum and many "how-to" guides on autism caution you to explain puns or avoid them. Some even suggest teaching our children to laugh at puns or make them up to improve their social skills. If you have to teach a person to laugh at puns, then they are not really funny!

What did we do to teach Pamela to get puns? Nothing directly!

When we started RDI three years ago, we worked on the idea of variation. We played a game in which we tossed a ball (David, Pamela and I). The first step was getting a pattern going. Once Pamela got the pattern, we introduced a tiny variation: using a different ball, poorly aiming the ball, etc. We often laughed, and Pamela began to see that variation can be funny. She began to laugh at the unexpected! In time, she cracked up when someone got bonked on the head or the balls came flying fast and furious or David threw a grape instead.

We added variation into all aspects of our life: if something we were doing had a pattern, then it was ripe for variation: laundry, cooking, shopping, reciting poems, reading a book, etc. Then, we threw in some anticipation to ratchet up the excitement. Going back to the ball example, David faked two or three throws while making his facial expressions bigger and bigger before completing the toss. I might look at Pamela to throw, fake it once or twice, and then slow enough for her to process my trick, switch my aim to David. In time, we could play that trick on Pamela because she understood the humor.

One of the biggest problems our kids have in real life is unexpected change. Helping them to anticipate and sometimes enjoy variation can avoid meltdowns. When I dropped her soda at a concert the other day, Pamela did not get a bit upset because she had drank enough to satisfy her. When the waitress at the Mexican restaurant told her they only had honey mustard, not yellow mustard, she took it in stride. While our work on variation has not completely inoculated her from meltdowns, she has come a long way.

What does variation in activities have to do with puns? Pamela clearly translated the idea of variation being funny in the ball tossing games to her scripts. When someone varies the script with a word that is almost the same, she truly finds it funny. We do not have to wink our eye or nudge her. She laughs because she gets the humor.

The same thing applies to nonsense humor like the Scotsman gag in Monty Python. Pamela caught onto the humor of people being zapped by aliens and turned into Scotsmen. Three minutes and thirty seconds into the skit, a bobby stands next to a woman with a baby carriage (or should I say, pram). You expect one of the adults to transform. The anticipation comes out of not knowing which one. The bobby morphs, followed by the woman. What makes that segment especially funny is when a red beard appears on the baby blanket and the carriage rolls off to Scotland with the others.

Humor, like play, ought not to be taught. Why? Redoing gaps in a child's development, starting with infant level milestones, allows play and humor to emerge on their own.