Monday, May 31, 2010

Lost and Found at the Grocery Store: Small Steps to Competence

When Tom was seven, we went to the library.  The children's library was downstairs, while the adult books were on the second level.  Somehow I thought Tom was right behind me when I headed upstairs -- but he wasn't.

Of course, we were reunited within just a couple of minutes, but the sense of anxiety and loss has stuck with him all these years.  As a result, it can be very tough for Tom to be on his own in a public place, out of sight of mom or dad, even at the age of nearly fourteen.

To help him develop the emotional skills to manage being out of eyeshot, we've been practicing in the grocery store.  We've developed a whistle to say "here I am!," and today Tom practiced heading up an aisle and out of view, and then whistling back and forth with mom.  A little later, I sent him to find a product in the next aisle, but we kept talking throughout the process.  By the end of the shopping trip, Tom was able to head back to the produce aisle to get a less-squashed bunch of bananas while I continue to place items on the cashier's counter!

This type of step-by-step approach isn't actually managed in a day.  We've been working toward grocery-store independence for months...  sometimes in visual range, sometimes not.  Each time, we've talked about the issue of anxiety, about strategies for finding me (whistling, calling, asking a staff person for help), and each time the anxiety has been just a bit less.

No, we still can't send our almost-fourteen-year-old around the corner for a quart of milk.  But step by step, that possibility gets closer!

Monday, May 24, 2010

New Reviews of "Get Out, Explore, Have Fun" Explore the Complexity of the Autism Community

Today, new reviews of Get Out, Explore and Have Fun by blogger Kim Wombles and parent/advocate Stan Jaskiewicz (who is quoted in the book) highlight the reality that it's not always easy to find one's place in the autism community.  All too often, we are swayed by the expectations of others, or by the sometimes-ferocious politics within the autism community itself.  How do you rise above the noise to find a direction that works for you and your family?

Here's what Stan - a tireless advocate and hands-on Dad - suggests:
In my advocacy in various contexts, such as religious education or adaptive sports, I have tried to provide a consistent message to parents of children with disabilities. Don't assume your child can't do something because of his or her autism - you may have to provide accommodations, be involved yourself as a leader to facilitate your child's participation, and plan the event intensively, but your child is capable of many great things.
Kim, a dedicated autism blogger and mom, has for many years been a major voice in the autism controversies that seem to grow more heated and polarized every day.  In her review of Get Out, Explore, however, she notes that she's found more common ground than she anticipated:
...I’ve communicated more over the last year with parents whose beliefs regarding their child’s autism run the gamut and yet somehow, we’ve managed to fairly easily work together to try to advocate for others in need and to forge friendships, as well, based on the mutual desire to make the world a better place for our children. It’s refreshing and heartwarming to realize that we have common interests that rise above the questions of causation.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Read Samples from "Get Out, Explore, Have Fun!"

Curious what's inside Get Out, Explore, Have Fun?  I'm pleased to say that I've placed samples from the book on my website.  But if you want a taste right now, here's just one of the three excerpts I've posted:

Exploring Your Options (Yes, you have options!)
Today, the YMCA, Boy and Girl Scouts, museums, and an incredible range of community and private programs are very aware of the huge rise in kids with “special needs.” Fewer and fewer program directors are likely to say “We can’t help you” when you mention a developmental delay or even an autism diagnosis. And more community groups than you’d expect have actually gone out of their way to learn about and provide supports for kids with autism, ADHD, and similar developmental differences.

The problem is that too few parents, teachers, therapists, and support groups are aware of how things have changed—not only for our kids with special needs but for families overall. There’s much more openness to special needs families, if for no other reason than the fact that we now make up some 15 percent of the family market overall.

And it’s also much more acceptable than ever before for parents to take an active role in their child’s informal learning experiences. Parents hang out and take part in arts programs; they attend every athletic practice; they camp out along with their young Boy and Girl Scouts; they attend every meeting of YMCA Adventure Guides. As the parent of a child on the autism spectrum, who needs you by his side, you’re not as unusual as you may feel.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Teaching Kids with Autism: Words are Not Enough

Chances are, if you have a child on the autism spectrum, he or she learns in many different ways.  She may learn visually or aurally.  He may learn through hands-on experience, through music or through nature.  But the fact is, most kids with autism do NOT learn well through conversation, lecture, or reading aloud. 

There's a simple reason for this: autism, by definition, involves language and communication deficits.  Even people with Asperger syndrome can have a tough time interpreting the underlying meaning of words, stories and tone of voice.  People with moderate autism take a longer time than most to interpret and respond to spoken or written words, and may find it challenging indeed to make sense of implied or symbolic meaning.  Of course, people with no spoken language at all will find it nearly impossible to learn entirely through words.

Unfortunately for our kids, schools (after preschool and kindergarten) teach almost exclusively through the use of the spoken and written word.  Children with autism, when they're included in general education classrooms, must grasp teachers' directions instantly, and respond within seconds.  If they don't they're quickly left behind.  Even with an aide, kids simply can't process and respond to verbal cues as rapidly as their typically developing peers.

Fortunately for our kids, however, schools aren't the only place where our kids can learn.  In fact, throughout history, verbal skills have only been a small part of the picture.  All around the world, kids learn by watching, imitating, trying and doing.  They learn through apprenticing, modeling, and direct instruction.  Whether they're learning to care for critters, use a paintbrush, zip their pants or hammer a nail, words are only a very small part of the teaching and learning equation.

How does your child with autism learn?  Where might he find instructors who teach as he learns?  Think outside the box of school, and consider the wide world of informal education.  Might your child learn best with whole-body experiences - through athletics, dance, martial arts or tumbling?  Through hands-on experiences - through exploring a nature center, fishing off a pier, or sculpting with clay?

The world is a very big place, and the possibilities are endless.  School and word-based learning are not enough.

In the photo: Tom Cook meets Peter the Rabbit at the Greenbriar Nature Center in Sandwich, MA.  Following this class, our family became volunteers at the center.  All four of us (sometimes with friends) fed and exercised the tortoises, turtles, hedgehog, guinea pig and rabbits once a month for two years!).