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Thursday, October 21, 2010

Ode to Desks

I picture buried under a few years worth of mundane city trash piles of discarded school desks.  Or maybe old desks are warehoused in school district mobile storage units collecting dust and cobwebs.  Or better yet, perhaps these now disrespected former tools of education have been shipped off to third world countries for use in one room village schoolhouses. 

Where have all the school desks gone....and why?  I find myself pondering another topic due to my son's situation that I would probably not have considered were it not for his sensory issues...

When I was visiting umpteen private schools this time last year searching for a good Kindergarten fit for Finney, I visited a very traditional Catholic elementary school in town.  As I toured the school and its long hallways with extra high ceilings, thick stucco walls and solid wood floors, memories of my 13 years of Catholic education came flooding back. The familiar feel of a cold draft in the hallways, the echo in the indoor auditorium, the genteel priest, the lack of fanfare on the walls and in the classrooms, the statues of the Virgin Mary, and the quiet soberness in the air.  I had forgotten how different such a school is in a town of mostly "progressive" educational institutions.  But it felt like home to me, safe, secure, somber.

I recall the deacon who was showing me around explaining to me that he had just this past year "modernized" the classroom setting and teaching method by getting rid of desks and chalkboard teaching and organising the classrooms into "learning centers".   I remember thinking, wow, it took them THAT long to catch on to the way every other school was teaching these days? Not impressed.  I recalled such boredom in elementary and especially, high school, sitting at a desk trying to pay attention to the teacher, praying not to be called to the chalkboard, all the while being passed notes from friends because we could not talk while at our desks.  "Learning centers", yes, that made sense to me. Engaging and cooperative - fun, not boring I thought.

Fast forward one year and my son is having a LOT of trouble learning in the learning centers and if we do not find a solution to his problems soon, I do not know what we will do.  Why is he having such trouble, I have to ask myself?  Well for starters, learning centers are chaotic.  Picture twenty 5-yr olds, splitting into 2 or 3 groups, moving from floor carpet squares to chairs, chairs and tables that are squeezed into a small area, chairs that screech across the floor as they are moved. The students don't have desks with all the supplies they need to work with right there, so they wander around the room finding the glue stick box, the pencil box, the crayon box, etc.  All the while, kids chattering away. No order.  No quiet.

So the kids take the expected 5-10 minutes to settle down in their learning groups.  I, a parent, now acting as a volunteer "teacher" one hour a week  to one of these groups, attempt to talk the children through the concept that they are supposed to learn and their requisite activities, raising my voice over the noise of the other kids in the other centers, and asking them to turn their little bodies in my direction to pay attention.  My son is lost within 2 minutes. Too many steps to recall for his ADHD type mind amidst the noise.

While we are working, there are other kids moving about the room, some doing free choice on the floor, others choosing a different workspace because there may not be enough room for their taste at the group table, others walking around to find supplies. Voices come and go. I patiently go around the table offering help and keeping kids on task.

Finbar succeeded the first week in efficiently completing his work in this setting.  Each week thereafter his behavior and ability to work in the group setting has declined to being completely out of control this week.  I'm not making excuses for my son. There is ONE girl in the group who can completely work independently and finish her work with virtually no assistance. But I must say that the other 5 children get distracted by the stuff going on and have to be prompted to continue working every few minutes. Finbar is the worst of them usually. His sensory system simply cannot process the background noise or filter it out. He has told me this.  He consequently can't think straight, forgets what he is supposed to do, feels overwhelmed and helpless and has a breakdown. 

The close physical proximity of the other children is a challenge as well.  He is tactile defensive, so his sensory system fears invasion of personal space, so he is tensed all the while worrying about being touched inadvertently.  Sometimes the fear is so great that he kicks or shoves another kid in anticipation of being touched.  If he were in a desk, he would not be close enough to kick anyone and everyone's personal space would be clearly defined.

I am not an educator so I am sticking my neck out a bit here - But why is this the new BETTER way to teach? Where is the benefit over desks? What happened to order and quiet in the classroom?  Can we really expect 5 yr olds to learn on the floor and in groups in such a distracted manner?  I can't help thinking that Finbar's sensory system and brain would function much more attentively in a hard, wooden desk FACING the teacher and learning materials (not another child across the table from him), his and everyone else's personal boundaries clearly defined, all work materials and personal belonging in one spot within reach, and the focus being in one place - a chalkboard.  Now the chalkboards are used to hang up class artwork and pictures of the kids.  And in this setting, every child would be expected to STOP TALKING AND DO YOUR WORK. Peace and quiet - ahh.

I vividly recall my Kindergarten days. "Take out your phonics books please" Mrs. Bahan would say. Everyone heard, no need for her to raise her voice. We were quiet and sitting still in our desks. We all did what she said when she said it in synchronicity.  She proceeded to show us the lesson on the chalkboard, sometimes having one or two of us go up to practice on the board. Allowing time for questinos, we would raise our hands from our desks. Then we took our pencils out of the little slot carved in the desktop for such a tool and did the requisite exercise in our very own phonics textbooks - what happened to textbooks?  And the teacher REQUIRED us to work QUIETLY. If you were a disturbance to the class work, your desk was put up front by the teacher's desk. How's that for focus?

What was so wrong with this desk learning model I wonder?  Don't we all go to the library or a quiet place to read and learn?  Even at Starbucks you see everyone studying with headphones on blocking out the background noise. And unless it is a study group, you don't see strangers studying around the same table at a coffeeshop invading someone's personal space.  When I am at home on my PC working, I don't pull up a chair next to my husband while he is working at his desk, saying "Hey, let's learn and engage together".    If adults need quiet and space to study and learn, why on earth would we expect 5 yr olds to learn BETTER without quiet and in such close proximity to each other?  They are not MBA students.  Arent' we asking a bit much increasing class sizes to 25 or 30 kids and then expecting teachers and kids to maintain calm and focus in such a configuration? It's no wonder there is a seemingly increasing number of kids who have "ADD"  and "learning disabilities" identified at school. But is that a fair assessment when we put children in this kind of learning environment?

I would like to emphasize greatly, that this is NOT ANY teacher's fault.  Finbar's teacher is executing the educational format common in today's schools.    My theory is that "learning centers" are an excuse for accomodating budget cuts to public schools.  You don't need to buy textbooks to fill desk cubbies.  You break the larger classes down into manageable pieces for the teachers and pray for decent parent volunteers to take on a learning group or two.  And I suppose you can cram more kids into the classroom if you don't have desks set up. And in today's world of increasingly loose boundaries the idea of learning centers gels with the out with the old and dull, in with the new and groovy mentality.

I spent my whole school career at Catholic schools sitting in a desk.  I graduated with Honors from a top MBA school, so I certainly did not suffer from a lack of learning centers. Perhaps this old Catholic school had it right.  They were willing to work with Finbar. Ultimately I did not send him there because the school's test scores were quite low - I believe due to an outdated curriculum, not the desk teaching model.  But if that school still had desks, I might just be re-visiting it at this point.  I am thankful for St. Francis Cabrini, St. Pius X and Ursuline Academy for their desks :)

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Decky Doodle, Child of Grace and Finbar's Little Bother

Always smiling
Declan chose to eat his "spwinkle" donuts naked while it was snowing nonstop outside
I have been meaning to write about my second child Declan, affectionately known as Decky. He is 3 1/2, exactly two years younger than Finbar.  Decky has many nicknames, which might give you an idea of the character that
he is. Here is a partial list of his nicknames:  doodle poodle, snuggle bunny, fuzzy wuzzy, fuzz bucket, Tank, Survivorman, snuggle bug, snuggly buggly, #2, the lil general, the two footer, the Destroyer, the Wildman, Energizer Bunny, Mr. Independent....

But the nickname by which Finbar refers to Declan is "My little BOTHER".  And that is the term he uses to introduce Declan to complete strangers at any chance he gets...."Hi, I'm Finbar. And this here is my little BOTHER (emphasized) Declan. You see, I call him my little bother instead of my little brother because he bothers me a lot, but sometimes he is nice, but mostly he just bothers me and makes me mad, etc, etc, etc."

Declan shares Finbar's fascination with throwing rocks in the lake for hours on end

Poor Declan takes a verbal, emotional and physical beatin from Finbar on a daily basis, but he can dish it right back to his older brother, all the while with a smile on his face.

I'd like to dedicate this entry to Declan's new preschool teacher, who has come into his life at just the right time and has been so supportive.  You see Declan is an energizer bunny, and his new teacher's arms are a great receptacle for that energy - her enthusiasm matches his.  At 3 yrs old, he needs another pair of loving arms to welcome his energy because his older brother sure as hell does not welcome all that energy into his spectrum world... too overwhelming. 

And yet, it is that same high level of energy and zest for everything which Declan possesses that has been so instrumental in drawing Finney out of his autism and into Declan's world of play, imagination, motivation, celebration, music making, conversation and socializing. Were Declan a mellow yellow kid, I would be SOL and Finbar would have very little interest in playing with anyone.

But thank God for Declan, the child of grace...going back to the Shaman visit that  I wrote of previously.  After Sudama was through checking out Finbar, he walked into the playroom where Declan was sitting and asked me "what about your second child, anything I need to do?"  Declan said not a word. And almost telepathically, Sudama and I both looked at him and just shook our heads, "no".  Then Sudama just kind of nodded in agreement with me, saying "child of Grace".  No need there. 

Child of Grace he is. God gave me a gift in my autistic son. And then he saw me struggling with that gift and sent me a follow up gift in the form of the world's most forgiving, empathetic, intuitive, kind, intelligent, completely tough and confident baby brother for Finbar.  I truly believe in my heart that God sent Declan to be a teacher for Finbar and a refuge for me.    His profuse enthusiasm and affection, overboard at times, easily fill a room and fill a void in me and our family that was created in the early years when Finbar was very detached.  While Finbar is tactile defensive and gives me a stiff hug now and then, Declan ORDERS me to snuggle and spoon him EVERY morning as I am greeted with "Mommy snuggle" and a kiss on my forehead.  Throughout the day, I am ordered to repeat this event. No hug is too tight for him. Bliss.

When Declan was born, I had just realised that Finbar had autism and during the first 3 months of Declan's life, I tried not to think about what was coming down the road with Finbar. It was a dark time and I know that I did not completely bond with Declan during those first few months, so depressed and preoccupied was I. But when Declan was about 6 months old, I began to see that he had an extraordinary personality, like a prayer answered he snapped me out of my depression with this vivacious bold, personality.  He was a LOUD baby. I mean REALLY loud.  He would guffaw at the slightest prompting and so very loudly, his whole body shaking bald head to toe.  And he played drums with anything anywhere all the time.  He was extraordinarily strong and confident. A real go getter. Still is.  The first year of his life Finbar detested Declan's very loud gregarious presence..  

But I am convinced that no other sibling with no other temperament than Declan's would have been so beneficial for Finbar's progression into our world.   Declan is simply so bold, so confident, so in your face sweet, that there was no way that Finbar could avoid interaction with him. Another sibling personality would have shrunk back and given up on having any fun or sharing any love with Finbar in those early days. Finbar would ignore, push, shove, yell, bump, kick (still does) - but Declan's natural love and desire to be with his older brother and his self confidence in the face of his older brother's threats was too strong. Despite how badly Finbar treats Declan at times, Declan is fiercely protective of his older brother and will not even sit down to eat dinner without Finbar. And  Declan seems to intuitively know that Finbar requires a lot of leeway and most times he willingly gives it to Finney.  He is also so intelligent and clever that he can keep up with his older brother's verbal output and quirky habits.   So there is no way that Finbar can avoid interaction with him. Declan simply will not have it.

In view of all this, we recently got rid of the behaviorists. For 3 1/2 years we have had numerous adults spending umpteen hours a week teaching Finbar to play, and they did make progress.  But strangely, without them Finbar plays better and more with his brother than ever. And he seems to be benefitting as much, if not more, than playing with adult therapists 10 hours a week. Declan is leading the way most times, inviting Finbar into imaginary play...Finbar usually trying to assume control but secretly enjoying the play.  And in recent weeks, I have seen Finbar initiate the imaginary play with his brother too.  

In the end, they get frustrated with each other, they fight, they wrestle, they scream, poke, kick, hit.  It drives me nuts, but I am so grateful that it's that way instead of something else. Thank God for the little bother.

I live with Dory

I live with Dory from the movie Finding Nemo, you know the fish that had no short term memory.  Only thing is, instead of Ellen DeGeneres' voice, she has Finbar's.

Here is a sample of   "conversation" that occurs with my son on a daily, hourly basis.

Finbar:  "Mom, how many months until my birthday?"
Me:  "Remember we talked about this yesterday, you know the answer."
Finbar: "huh? well, uh, can you tell me again, I don't remember."
Me: (tensing up because this is the umpteenth conversation we've had like this)  "OK, RU listening carefully to my answer because I am only going to say it once?"
Finbar: ( has momentarily spaced out):   "uh, what did you say? .. uh, yes I'm listening."
Me:  "Your birthday is in 2 months...  So how many months is it until your birthday Finney?"
Finbar: "uh, 2 months. (pause)  But did you say 2 months mom?"
Me: "Yes."
Finbar:  "But how many days is 2 months mom?"
Me:  "I don't know Finney, about 60."
Finbar:   "60 days mom?"
Me:   "yes finney, 60 days."
Finbar:    "But are you SURE 2 months is 60 days mom?"
Me:  "Yes, I'm sure 2 months is 60 days."
Finbar:  "So my birthday is in 60 days?"
Me:   "YES Finney."
Finbar:  "So 60 days is 2 months mom? My birthday is in 2 months?  That's 60 days right?"
Me:   "That's what I said Finney. So how many months until your birthday?"
Finbar:   "Uh, did you say two months mom? You said 2 months right?"
Me: "Yes Finney."
Finbar:   "Oh. And two months is 60 days, right mom, right? My birthday is in 60 days then? "
Finbar:   "Oh, OK mom. (pause) Mom, my birthday is in 2 months."
Finbar: (a little quieter now) "Mom, my birthday is in two months"
Me:  (silence)
Finbar: "Mom, my birthday is in two months"
Me: (silence) 
Finbar:  "Mom, my birthday is in two months. Mom, why aren't you answering me mom? mom? MOM!"
Finbar:    "I'm ready mom.  Why do you always get mad at me? I was JUST asking a QUESTION."
 Me: (in my head) "Just keep swimming. Just keep swimming. Just keep swimming, swimming swimming. What do we do? We swim, swim, swim. ...are you my conscience?". - Dory

There is much research surrounding the link between Autism and Alzheimers.  Some liken Autism to the Alzheimers of children.  Both appear to be caused by brain inflammation.  We will be seeing a neurologist about this very soon.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

His World

Bright children are fascinating. I have to be honest and say that there are children who have an average intelligenc and they are not really fascinating.  But the really bright ones are.  I wonder what kind of child Bill Gates was. My son is super bright.  He is fascinating to most adults, most are captivated by his articulation, charm, curiosity and wit.  Too bad other 5 yr olds are not as fascinated. One of the fascinating things about my son is watching him make up his own entertainment. In his own world, in his mind, where he lives a lot.

Lately, Finbar has been "stimming" a lot.  Stimming, or self stimulatory behavior, is a lot like chewing on your pencil, picking your nose, shaking your knee when sitting....its usually an outlet for some underlying anxiety, deep thought or nervousness.  Stimming is a key factor in autism. When Finbar stims, he stims with his entire body.  He kind of grits his teeth, eyebrows pursed, making some humming noise, fingers flicking, arms stiffly shaking up and down, legs stiffly jumping up and down and around.  It is very medicine doctor-like.  When he is in this trance, he doesn't appear to hear you.  Time and time again I ask him what he is thinking and feeling when he does this and he can't remember. Or he will consistently say that he does that when he is excited.  Anyway, I find this way of tuning out the world fascinating to watch (and disturbing as well).  It is so unusual - where does it come from?

Other ways Finbar checks out of this world are amusing. Here are some things I caught him doing recently:

- raising the pump lever of a bicycle pump to different heights and watching how fast or slow it went down when he released it.
- sailing a model wooden sailboat in a 6 ft long gutter fillled with water for 2 hours
- filling and emptying the laundry sink repeatedly for more than an hour to watch the "black hole" or whirlpool of water go down the drain
- filling the drain of same sink with first a popped balloon and its string, and then stick after stick after stick.
- turning on the outdoor faucet and watching the water flow out, all the while stimming while his shoes got soaked.
- walking around the house "flying" a jet plane for an hour without saying a word

I wonder, do other children engage in this sort of self entertainment? Dunno.  My other son does not do these things. He plays trains.  Other kids seem to build legos and play Leapfrog.  But that is less interesting to watch...

Sunday, October 3, 2010

More "G" and Space Shuttle talk

Just a quick follow-up on previous blogs topics.  We've had two more encounters with "G" since posting. First was at an adult birthday party.  Long and short of it was at the end of the evening I found Finbar and "G" playing quietly (and he looking very content to do so) in a bedroom with what appeared to be a mountain of pink toys.  When i asked him later what they were doing he replied, "Uhhhh, we were playing with girl toys. It was sooo boring."  But he happily stuck with her. What a guy.

Last night "G" came over to our house with her parents.  I caught Finbar just ga ga staring at her from afar several times.  Poor sap.

Finally, I watched a documentary called "In the Shadow of the Moon".  It is the story of the astronauts who went to the moon from 1968-1972 told in their own words during interviews.  These were fascinating and amazingly brave, highly intelligent men, who are all now about 80.  Real American heroes.  I experienced great relief when more than one mentioned that as a child all he could think of, all he wanted to do, was to fly.  Model airplanes, rockets, the works.  Buzz Aldrin was even known to be a bit obsessive about some scientific topics, talking endlessly about orbits and such.  I was immediately relieved to know that (as long as Obama doesn't shut down NASA entirely),  there still is hope that Finbar in fact, being of similar mind to these cool ole guys, will learn to fly and even become an astronaut or rocket scientist.  In fact, in recent days he and I have come up with his plan for learning how to fly. First, learn to read, write and do math. Second, purchase a flight simulator software package around age 8. Third, get into flying model airplanes around age 10.  Fourth, take flying lessons around age 11 or 12.  Finally, attend a commercial pilot school for college.  Space shuttle pilot...

The Dry Erase Board Artist and Angie Dickinson

I went to Ross the other day and overspent in the toy section, yet again, in the hopes of finding some piece of plastic made in China that will spark the imagination and creativity that so many therapists have pointed out are lacking in my son's play.  To that end, our playroom looks like a full blown preschool.  We have toys in neat little canvas bins on shelves - manipulatives, imaginary play, sensory toys, arts and crafts, trains, planes and automobiles, marble towers, Candyland, play huts, floor cushions, bean bags and the list goes on.  And to boot, we have converted our carport into a quasi occupational therapy center complete with tire swing and cocooning hammock. 

When Finbar was a baby, he would not engage with any toy for long (an autism red flag often overlooked).  Many toys were uninteresting to or frightened him.  He never liked sounds and lights - overload.  As he increasingly grew interested only in balls and things that spun (so he could stim), I searched far and wide for the perfect toy to engage him and filled a 20x20 playroom in the process.

Long ago my goal was simply for Finbar to roll a ball back to me. The "goal du jour" is imaginary play. This is  a common skill deficit in autistic children, and by age 5 deficit clearly separates and isolates many ASD kids from peers.  According to experts imaginary and dramatic play is all the rave in the typical 5 yr old's world. Pretending to be pirates and Star Wars characters, putting on puppet shows, playing doctor, and dressing up for Halloween (Finbar's worst nightmare) are all "normal".  I frankly don't remember being into dress up and dramatic play as a child and I certainly hate to dress up in a costume now, so this bout of developmental focus is a stretch for me.

But I plow on.  I am in Ross and amongst other things I see a mini dry erase board with chalk board on other side. It folds out like a tent to sit on a table. I think, good for practicing letters.  But - Bingo!    When I brought it home, Finbar drew on the board for more than two hours stating, "mom, I'm going to be busy doing this all day".  He drew sheep, penguins, and then for about an hour he drew the planets, earth and its oceans, the solar system and all things in the universe it seemed.  We even had a little contest drawing pictures and having the other one guess what it was.  He was on imagination fire and I got my 10 bucks worth out of that toy :)

Just one year ago, I was resigned to the fact that Finbar would never really draw or color. And I was just praying that he would learn how to hold a writing utensil correctly by the time he was 7 or 8, his fine motor skills were so lacking. And here he is at age five holding the dry erase pen correctly and free drawing.

 We are so impatient with our kids sometimes.  Development, even in a developmentally delayed child, HAPPENS.  We always want our kids to start at the end result.  In this case, holding a crayon and drawing a great picture, colored in, by age 5 - because that is what Suzie G over there can do.  But with Finbar, I realized that many kids need to take baby steps and we as parents need to recognize and support this. So we started with stick drawings in the sand. It was then I realized that he COULD write his name, just not with a pencil.  Then it was sidewalk chalk. That's when I learned he COULD draw pretty detailed pictures, mostly of rocket ships mind you, but great pictures, just not using a crayon.  Then it was a chalk board, and lo and behold he COULD write letters and numbers, just not with a pencil.  So now, we are working on the pencil in Kindergarten. I give him golf pencils, the half length ones and he holds them fine. Give him a long one and he is lost.  But he has closed the gap with his peers. Patience. It only took a year.

oh yes, and I FINALLY convinced him to wear a Halloween costume this year....well, sort of. It is a pair of glow in the dark skeleton pajamas. Patience...

On another note, a very very sad and disturbing article came across my screen..  Click here for story. Apparently Angie Dickinson and Burt Bacharach had an only daughter who just committed suicide at age 40.  She had Aspergers, but did  not know until she was in her twenties. This led to lack of early intervention and poor decisions about her care.  The description of her as a child is not unlike my own son - highly verbal and precocious, but with severe sensitivities.  After reading I feel so blessed and lucky in my unluck that Finbar was born at a different time, a more opportune time. I have lots of hope for him and children like him.  Poor Angie Dickinson was not given that same hope. She speaks throughout the article of her daughter never really feeling grounded and connected. My son feels the same. But in today's world, with all the awareness and early intervention, I am hopeful that those who live in this world will help him stay grounded and connected by reaching out and understanding.  If you are reading this blog you are one of those people :)