Posts Tagged ‘autism’

Everyone Dreams

I attended my youngest daughter’s kindergarten graduation recently. It was lovely and emotional and sweet and funny. It was the perfect ending to, what I believe is, the most crucial educational year for children. Imagine the enormous amount of knowledge that children acquire between birth and the end of kindergarten. It’s mind-blowing really — they learn to sit and crawl and walk and talk and play. They learn to use the bathroom by themselves and to recognize letters and numbers. They learn to read and write and talk more… they learn major life skills in the first six years. And at the end of those six years, at the end of kindergarten… our dreams as parents come true when we see them shed their cocoons and emerge as butterflies. That’s my reality, as the parent of children who aren’t affected by autism. But, reality can look different for others… dreams can look different for the parents of children with autism.

When I first started teaching my preschool class for children with special needs, I never hesitated to start the tradition of having an end of the year “graduation” program. It just made sense, all the preschools did it — why wouldn’t I? After all, I, at 22, was sure I was “the miracle worker”. I thought of the end of the year graduation program as a place to showcase all I had accomplished that year — me, “the miracle worker”.

I taught my students a variety of songs about the weather and letters and days of the week and months of the year. I taught them to sing (sort of) “Hero” by Mariah Carey. I beamed as the parents and grandparents and family friends struggled to contain their tears. I guess it didn’t take long, even for a 22 year-old, to realize something else entirely different was happening during that graduation ceremony. Normalcy was happening. Dreams were happening.

Over the next several years, as I realized I wasn’t “the miracle worker”, I began to hear what the parents of my student’s were actually saying. I began to listen to the dreams they had, the dreams they didn’t want to let go of, the dreams that were often faltering under the weight of the reality of autism. Dreams of attending kindergarten like everyone else, dreams of playing baseball like everyone else, dreams of graduating high school like everyone else. Dreams that shouldn’t be tossed aside.

Around the second or third year I taught, a beautiful brown-haired, blue-eyed boy with autism showed up to enroll. Looking at him was glorious because he was physically perfect for a four-year old. He had perfect little muscles in his arms and legs, he had perfect rose-colored lips, he had a perfect smile. Everyone who saw him immediately remarked on his looks. He had autism. He didn’t speak. He often cried. He slapped the back of his neck so hard he would leave bruises.

His mother told me of her dreams for him — the ones she had when he was born, and the ones she had then, as he was a four-year old diagnosed with autism. She had given up a few dreams for him, already. She convinced herself that giving up her dream of hearing his name announced over a loud-speaker as he scored the winning touchdown and replacing it with the dream that he would one day say, “I love you mom” was perfectly reasonable and she didn’t need to dwell. She convinced herself that the new dreams were just as important, just as meaningful, just as attainable. I spent a large portion of that first year he was in my class trying to get this beautiful little boy to show me some sign that he was in there, to show me he understood — to show me I was doing something viable. I think sometimes as an educator of children with special needs — that’s what we need — just to know we are viable.

By the end of his second year in my class, I was discouraged to say the least. I didn’t know what avenue to take with him — he was five and I had all but given up. I expressed my frustration to his mother quite often. She would encourage me to keep trying, just keep trying. I, in all my wisdom as a 22 year-old teacher, thought my angst about teaching him was greater than any that others could possibly be feeling — even his mother.

One day, at the beginning of his third year in my class, his mother told me she needed to hear him say, “Mom.” I explained that I didn’t think I could help him…I didn’t think I had anything new to try. She, again, encouraged me to keep trying, just keep trying. She brought a tape for me to watch that day. I reluctantly put it in the recorder and pushed play. It was him, just a few months before he had started my class — but it was surreal. The beautiful boy on the tape was calm and inquisitive and talking — he was talking. He said, “look at big bird momma.” Those words, those five words. I broke down in tears. I knew his mother’s heart broke everyday that passed by without hearing those words — everyday that her old dreams faded into the walls of her memory and slowly became replaced with new dreams, very different dreams.

Working with children with autism is a balancing act — there are attempts that don’t work, there are successes. We keep trying. We want so desperately to be a catalyst for our students to achieve those well planned out dreams. We read all the professional books. We study all the research. That’s what we do as educators of children with autism — we learn, we try, we start over.

We have graduation programs where we teach our kids to sing Hero by Mariah Carey and I Believe I Can Fly by R Kelly. We give out diplomas and we take pictures dressed in caps and gowns. Because for one night, anyway, we want the dream to be achieved, we want for there to be a small amount of normalcy… we want to give the parents and the children a night where the old dreams don’t need to be replaced.

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I was hoping a catchy title would draw you in — if you’re still reading…it worked!

I’m on another site again today with a post about Autism and Friendship. Please go read me there and leave a comment — I love comments. I’ll be back here on Tuesday with a post I hope you will all enjoy. But for now, please go here:


Don’t forget to tell your friends and leave a comment.

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Something New!

Hi! This isn’t really a post…

I wanted to tell you all that I had a piece published on a really cool website! Woohoo!


I would love it if you went there and read it — and, as always, please leave a comment and share a thought!

I’ll be back here later with a new post! Thank you!

(Also — what do you think about this new layout? Seriously! I’m curious.)

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I have mentioned before that I work (read am obsessed) with children with autism. There’s a behavior term that we use quite often when talking about how to reduce problematic behaviors — extinction. I love this word. It my professional world, I might encourage a teacher to ignore a behavior such as throwing paper or pencil to the ground. The child might simply be wanting the teacher to talk to him or to look at him and therefore creates a reason for this to happen. Ignore it and the problem might possible resolve itself.

Behaviorally speaking, here’s what extinction means:

Extinction is defined as the withdrawal of the consequent stimulus that previously maintained the problem behavior. In other words, extinction is stopping the positive reinforcement that has been encouraging the inappropriate target behavior to continue.

In simplified terms, it means to ignore.

How many times in our lives have we told someone to “just ignore it”? How many times have we been told to “just ignore it”? It’s really one of the best behavior modification techniques around. It can be hard to “ignore” certain things though — hard to pull off the perfect extinction.

I’ve talked about the girls I work with — they’re a great group who keep me level-headed and laughing (if those two things can exist together). Our running joke to each other when someone is doing their best to infiltrate our good time is to put them on extinction. We put many people on extinction on most days. Try it — (you’ll thank me later.)

But, as with any good behavior technique, the extinction could lead to bigger problems. Sometimes the behavior you are trying to ignore will escalate and become worse than you ever thought possible. It can be scary. It can make you fearful. It can make you re-think the logic of the extinction. Somethings are hard to ignore.

There’s a tricky side to putting a behavior or a person on extinction.

Here’s something I think that if you can pull off, you possess superpowers for sure. Try putting yourself on extinction. This is difficult at best. When you recognize a flaw in your behavior and try to reconcile it yourself — a bit of reverse extinction. By putting your own behavior on extinction, you are recognizing the problematic behavior, recognizing that it affects someone other than yourself, recognizing that you need to just stop.

I have always been under the impression that the ability to recognizing your own faults was quite divine — quite empowering. But then what? Where is the resolution? Really, the resolution comes when you take action. When you consciously work to create a solution and to practice the solution — when you work to just stop.

Of course, there’s the fear involved again. Fear of recognizing a problem. Fear of pinpointing a solution. Fear of taking action to resolve your own faults. To quote a friend, “I think about how futile it is, how fearful, and odd, and fierce… how majestic it is – her rage.” Tackling our own faults can make us fearful. It is what we choose to do with the fear that leads to change, and there are many things worth facing your fear’s for — many things worth creating change for — I get that.

So, back to extinction and my quest to become a superhero — (wait, I didn’t talk about my quest to become a superhero? Ok, next time). Use it freely, but understand the risks. Understand that in change, there is always fear. But in the fear, there can also be a little rage — just enough.

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Well, I’m hoping the title didn’t throw you off — but, I guess if you’re still reading, it didn’t. I’m obsessed with vacuuming. Laugh if you want, but I’ve carefully considered the reasons why I love to vacuum and to buy vacuums and to talk about vacuums and… oh, sorry — I’ll continue.

Working with children with autism, I’ve discovered the importance of our senses and how our sensory system helps regulate our emotions and our behaviors. About 75% of the cases I assist on are related to some type of aberrant behavior and that aberrant behavior is often tracked back to an inability to regulate sensory input — oh, I did it again didn’t I, sorry — I’ll continue.

I can remember when I was very young, I would so very easily fall asleep to the sound of the vacuum — its steady hum sent me immediately into some hypnotic state of Neverland. When my mother vacuumed at night, it was the best story I could have ever been read or the best lullaby I could ever have been sung. I could breathe deeply, relax, and let go.

When my oldest daughter was born, she was an excellent crier — the best, really, I wish there had been a contest. She cried at exactly the same time every night — 7:12 to 11:34. Although I knew this was coming and could try to plan my emotions around it — every night when it started, I always felt helpless. I was trying to soothe her one fateful night and trying to clean the small cramped apartment and stay focused on other things so as not to completely crack under the pressure of her cry. So, I coddled her in one arm and reached for the vacuum with the other.  As soon as I switched the vacuum to on — her crying stopped and I was able to take a deep cleansing breath.

That was my solution for her for the next 5 months. I went through three vacuums but I maintained my sanity. I’ve thought about this many times over the years. Whether or not her crying had something to do with my lack of mothering skills. If she was able to sense my tension at such an early age and her cries were reflective of that. And… if the vacuum helped me regulate or helped her regulate.

I vacuum quite often now. I usually begin my day by vacuuming my house — I know this might seem strange, but it can be very cleansing. I also typically vacuum the house as soon as I get home. For me, it’s not about all the carpet fibers going in the same direction (although that is an added bonus), and it’s not about the actual cleaning of the carpets (although, again, a bonus to my obsession), it’s about the sound. The dull, low, hum that resonates deep in me.

We are all trying to regulate our senses, to gain control of our emotions, to let go and breathe. Maybe mine seems a little strange. I would like to discuss it with you, as soon as I’m through vacuuming.

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