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A New Experiment

As I’ve noted before, I often feel like I’m conducting experiments in  how I raise my child.  Connor is not typical, nor is there any clear way to treat autism.  Thus much of how I parent is based on trial and error, collecting data, and performing experiments.

The new experiment for this summer is trying out a typical preschool.

Observation: Connor has entered a stage in his development in which he is mimicking classmates and other children he comes into contact with.

Problem: Given that Connor spends the majority of his time with other special needs children, he has begun to mimic symptoms and problematic behaviors of these other children.  His language also stopped developing, keeping it on par with classmates.  Connor has displayed frustration and displeasure in attending his regular special day class.

Hypothesis: Being around neurotypical children will encourage Connor to use more language and develop typical social skills, while reducing problematic behaviors.

Proposed Method of Research: Connor will attend a typical preschool, with a developmental program, two days per week.  Connor will also engage in extra curricular activities with typical peers, such as swimming lessons, play dates, and unstructured social environments (ie playing with unknown children at parks, beaches, etc.).  Connor will continue to attend special day class two days per week, as well as participate in a reduced ABA schedule, regular speech therapy, therapeutic horseback riding, and physical therapy/gymnastics.

Findings: TBA

Obviously when I was mulling over the problems and possible solutions in my head, my reasoning was not so clear and scientific.  In fact, I distinctly remember telling Connor’s psychologist that a large part of why I wanted to conduct this experiment during the summer was that I had “a gut feeling” that this was the right thing to do for him.  I’m hoping the science will back me up!

For the most part, at least in the most current research, the benefits of inclusion seem to outweigh the possible problems, but there are still causes for concern, still reasons to worry.  The recent research encourages me that this is right move for Connor, who is on the high functioning end of the spectrum.  And so far, Connor seems to be loving his new school! In class he isn’t speaking to much, and he has had a few frustrations, but at home I can already see some positive effects.  Just in the week since he’s started, Connor is using full sentences and spontaneous language more often than before.

Now maybe this is just a conincidence, and maybe it’s not.  Only time will tell.

Here are some articles on the benefits of inclusion:

Why Inclusion Benefits all Kids:

http://www.parents.com/blogs/to-the-max/2012/11/06/uncategorized/why-inclusion-in-classrooms-benefits-all-kids/

Benefits of Inclusion:

http://www.ehow.com/info_8656410_benefits-inclusion-preschool-children.html

Maryland Department of Education list of Inclusion Benefits:

http://olms.cte.jhu.edu/olms2/3841

 

Under Pressure

As many of you may know, I taught high school English for several years.  I enjoyed my students and the literature I was able to engage them in, but the overall teaching experience was not for me.

People are often shocked that I chose to leave teaching after just three years.  When I tell them that I spent nearly 30 hours a week working outside of the classroom, they were in disbelief.  Surely, that’s an exaggeration?  Sadly, it is not.  With department meetings, parent phone calls, lesson planning, essay grading, as well as chaperone duties, I easily worked from 7:30am-7:30pm each day of the week, as well as spending most of my Sundays on work.

Teaching is a pressure cooker.  Not only do you have the responsibility of teaching all these students, which means doing all the prep work and grading, you are under pressure to perform to a certain standard.  Every class is the equivalent of putting on a show.  You memorize your lines, you have your props, you sneak jokes in here and there, but you’re always mindful that you must incorporate standards, technology, multiculturalism, cross-curricular tie-ins….It’s enough to drive anyone crazy.

And it often does.  Several reports have come out in recent years citing the high turnover rates among teachers, particularly in their first five years of teaching.  These numbers have been quoted anywhere from 25-50%, while most agree that it’s about 30%.  Think about that!  1 in 3 teachers are leaving their jobs in the first five years for other careers!  What is really a shame is that many of these teachers are wonderful at their jobs.  They are talented, brave, creative, and engaging, and they are failing to get the job satisfaction they need to keep them in the industry.

A recent study highlight the problems of retention in teaching.  TNTP (The New Teacher Project) conducted a study focused on teacher retention in urban areas.  These areas are more likely to be dealing with issues of budget cuts, over-crowding, and little teacher support.  Their report found that retaining teachers who were highly effective at their jobs was more difficult that retaining teachers who were not.

In light of all this, it’s hard not to view the Chicago teachers’ strike with some sympathy. They are facing massive budget cuts, severe overcrowding (as many as 43 kindergarteners in one classroom), as well as a flawed teacher evaluation system.  Personally, I hate that there are hundreds of thousands of children out of school while these teachers strike.  Many of these children need school as a day care service for their working parents, as well as a source of meals and support.  However, those facts alone are enough to further support these teachers.  In today’s busy world, teachers often become surrogate parents to their students, spending more time with them than they do their own families.  School provides a structure and a support that many students are not getting at home.

In some cases this is understandable, but in many cases it is not.  Drawing from my own experiences and the teaching experiences of friends and colleagues, I’d like to make a plea:

Parents, please parent your child!  Please look over their homework.  Ask them when their reports are due.  Engage them in conversation at dinner that takes place over a table and not in front of a tv.  If they do something wrong, discipline them.  If they do something well, praise them.  Your child needs your attention.  Teachers cannot do it all.  They need your help!  They need you to parent so they can get back to the already stressful business of teaching.  If you don’t want to do it for the teachers, do it for your child.  They’re more likely to succeed in school (and in life) if you get involved.  Support your schools, your teachers, your child by being a parent.

 

Today and Everyday

Leading up to this point in our lives, Connor’s schedule has been somewhat chaotic.  Sure we had things regularly scheduled for different days: speech therapy at 9 on Mondays, behavior at 11 on Wednesdays and at 10 on Mondays, private therapy on Tuesdays at 1.    Weeks may have bared resemblance to each other, but no two days seemed the same.

This can make life hard on a stubborn 2-3 year old.  It was a complete nightmare for an autistic 2-3 year old who wanted the world ordered in a certain way. It was as if Connor woke up every morning with a clear idea of how things were going to go.  If I could imagine how he saw his day going it would go something like this:

wake up

watch some Sesame Street or Clifford the Big Red Dog

eat breakfast of waffles with a full cup of syrup

play with trains

go to the par, dump sand on my head, try to escape mom

eat goldfish crackers

come home and watch the same cat videos over and over again

have more goldfish

play with water outside

go for a walk in the field by our house (walk exceptionally slowly)

have even more goldfish

play computer games, especially ones that count or ask questions and then walk away leaving computer game repeating itself in the background

demand hotdogs and applesauce for dinner

take a bath for an hour

play with trains

watch a Thomas the Train movie

never go to sleep ever

As you can see, this is a great day for any toddler! Yay! All the goldfish and dirt you can get! No responsibilities, no demands, no learning.

Connor would wake up and immediately start requesting these heavenly toddler activities.  “Cat’s please?” or “Waffles? Waffles?” Some days I could accommodate and let him have a leisurely morning, watching some cat videos or taking 27 minutes to eat one waffle.  More often than not I wasn’t able to accommodate.

“No, baby, we have to go to …..”

“WAAAAAAAAAAA!!!!”

Great way to start any day, truly.

Other days, he’d be a little more reasonable and allow me to drag him to whatever activity with only minimal whining.  But as soon as that activity was over he’d start requesting other things: “Mickey Mouse?” (meaning Disneyland–we have a pass) or “this one, this one?” (pointing to whatever we were passing he wanted to stop at which could be anything from the park to the mall to a frozen yogurt shop).

“No, baby, we have to go to….”

“WAAAAAAAAAAAAA!!!!”

Can you see a pattern emerging??  Are you wondering how I could still have a few marbles rolling around up there? Me too…me too.

On the suggestion of Connor’s favorite therapist, and mine, Dr. David, I created a calendar to help him visualize what each day was going to hold.  I could lay out the whole week or even month so he could see what was going to happen and then temper his expectations based on the calendar.

Ok…why the hell not? It’s worth a shot!

Ta da! Connor’s wall! Well technically it’s the door going into the kitchen which is absolutely pointless and doesn’t even have a doorknob.  Thus it makes the perfect place for Connor’s art and calendar.

Here’s a better picture:

I used the magic of Google images to find pictures of a traditional school-house, Mickey Mouse, a playground, and his therapist, Dr. David.  Using my new super cool laminater I cut out the images, laminated them and then attached each to the calendar on the corresponding day with double-sided tape.

The current day is indicated by a star attached in the upper right hand corner.  The first activity of the day is layered over subsequent activities.  You can see in the picture above school is placed on top of a picture of a person (that’s Connor’s dad).  I did this so Connor could grasp the idea that we had to complete the first task in order to get to the one underneath.  So for last friday, he had to go to school before he could go to his dad’s house.

I think he’s beginning to get the idea!  He comes down in the morning and the first thing we do is look at the calendar.  We move the star to today and I ask him what we have to do today.  He tells me the activity and we start the morning without any crying! Yay!

(This doesn’t mean that Connor won’t start crying 5 minutes later when I ask him what he wants for lunch at school.  But at least when he looks at the calendar and says the activity himself, he seems proud that he’s able to identify what’s happening.)

Every time we move the star Connor lights up when he tells me what today holds for him.  If only I could see that smile today and everyday, my life would be perfect.

 

App That

Well I wasn’t going to blog today for various reasons:

  1. It’s the weekend and Connor is with his Dad, so I should be doing something, like, you know, relaxing!
  2. I have a wedding later today.  I really should be getting ready, as I am perpetually late…to everything.
  3. I’m tired and my brain is a bit fuzzy.

Obviously my reasons not to blog are numerous and excellent.  Yet, here I am.  My decision to blog today stems primarily from the fact that I spent the last hour exploring iPad apps for autism.  You heard that correctly: I spent an hour of one of my few and precious child-free days, investigating materials for my child. (Can you say co-dependent? or maybe obsessed?) Oh well, it is what it is.  Let’s not over-analyze, shall we?

Thanks to an article sent to me from my uncle, and several emails from my mother, I had a starting place.  My first app to explore was Injini.  The Injini Project is dedicated to “making learning fun”, something that many educational companies have attempted and failed at in the past.  This project, and all of his apps, have been the subject of much good press over the last year.  Perhaps too much good press for my taste, as I tend to grow skeptical the more something is praised.  I fully expected this app to be too good to be true.  I have seldom been so happy to be wrong.

This app is delightful!  I can honestly say, as someone who actually enjoys learning, that I was entertained by this app and its various games.  Yes, I know that I am not its target audience, but I am keenly aware of who that target audience may be: children like my son Connor.  Not that Connor is a reluctant learner, yet anyways.  He is only three and therefore not able to be labeled as such.  However, given his autism, reluctant learner seems inevitable.

Like many children with autism, Connor is best instructed when engaged in “preferred activities”, such as trains or bubbles, etc.  When he is playing with the toys or games he picks out, one can often use those as instruments of learning.  For example, I will play marbles with Connor.  He has a large marble run that he just adores.  He’ll set the marbles through their various ramps over and over again, delighted with the outcome, though it is the same every time.  So occasionally, I will use this focus to my advantage.  The marbles used in the run are different colors.  I ask Connor to name the color of the marble before I give it to him and he sends it down the run.  This is not rocket science.  It is actually very simplistic in nature, being an identify and repeat mode of learning.  But it works for us.

Injini uses that same model for the games in their app:

The various games you see in the squares above ask the child to engage in preferred activities of their choosing.  Each offers sound effects, a child narrator, and verbal and visual praise.  While engaged in something that the child considers fun, the app stealthily educates them!

Take for example the “Balloons” option:

Various colored balloons rise from behind a hill.  The avatar (that little white blob with the smile) asks you to pop the balloon of a certain color.  That balloon then gives a satisfying pop, shows a sort of explosion, and drenches the blob in that particular color causing it to grow and jump.  Reinforced learning and fun! Yay!

OK, so you and I might not be entertained by this for very long.  But for a child like Connor, who seeks out YouTube videos of balloons falling from ceiling or dogs popping balloons, this is an ideal way to engage him while simultaneously teaching him a valuable lesson on colors.

Another wonderful attribute is the question mark you see in the upper right-hand corner. This button will give the user clues or repeat the question, helping to ward off the inevitable frustration that comes with learning something new.

Though this is only the Lite (read free) version of the app, I couldn’t be more excited.  I cannot wait for Connor to open it up and try it out.  Hopefully he’ll be engaged as I was (or I’ll be really embarrassed that I find preschool learning so exhilarating).  If it goes as well as I’m expecting, I fully intend to purchase the full version and let you all in on the secrets the paid for app holds!

Until then, I’m going to go engage in some adult fun, like taking a long shower and drinking some wine.  Don’t worry though, I’ll probably be thinking of this app the whole time because that’s just how fun I am!

(p.s. I’ll continue to review apps for autism as I explore them, so stay tuned!)