Teacher Professor

August 30, 2010

“The” Talk

Filed under: Autism,Exceptionality issues — Teacher Professor @ 4:54 pm

Elizabeth and I had “the” talk last night and it was… interesting. 

I was driving Elizabeth and Emily and Ray somewhere  (can’t remember- I chauffeur a lot), when the topic of sex and drugs came up because of Miley Cyrus in “The Last Song”.  (What? No rock-n-roll?  Have you heard Miley Cyrus? No.  No rock-n-roll.)  The children were talking among themselves and agreed pretty quickly that drugs were a bad idea.  Phew.  I relaxed.  But no, the conversation wasn’t finished. 

“You know, she probably had sex with him,” my too-mature son stated.  “Yea,” the girls agreed.

“Wait a minute,” I said.  “Do you know what sex is?” (and for the record, there was no overt sexual situation in the movie). 

“DUH, Mom!”, my too-mature son said. 

“Yea, Mom,” Elizabeth chimed it.  And having few filters, she proceeded to tell me.  In detail.  Luckily for my nerves, she doesn’t have the vocabulary for all of the parts or processes, so there were a lot of “things” and “stuff”, but she had an idea of what was happening.  Unfortunately, while she was describing something, she wasn’t describing it– the real “this is what gets you pregnant” stuff.  (For the delicacy of the readers, and because this is not the Dr. Ruth blog, I’m not going to tell you what she was describing, but suffice to say that it was a common variation.)  Needless to say, she was waaaaaayyy beyond the “grownup kind of hug” that we had discussed before.  Ray and Emily were dissolving in fits of giggles, but Elizabeth was quite matter-of-fact about it.  I ended the conversation with a “Well, we can talk about that later, and Emily, you need to talk to your mom about this.”

So, during bedtime tuck-in last night, we had “the” talk, the one where the body parts are named, labeled, and how they all fit together was described- and what consequences there might be.  It was a biological talk.  It was a factual talk.  It was not a “fearful” talk, but it was an interesting one. 

Her first reaction was a sensory one.  “EWWW!  You and Daddy have done that TWICE?”  I tried not to laugh, I really did.  I kept a straight face and informed her that some things were private, and that when two people are adults and married, that privacy is very important.  She would not be getting details from me. 

But… I thought through the implication of that statement of privacy.   This is a child who takes things very literally.  If you don’t talk about it, well then, it doesn’t get talked about- at least to grownups.   So I talked about how if someone were to hurt her or to force her, that she would talk about it.  That if she wanted to talk about it at all before she got married, she could talk about it.  If she had any questions, she should talk about it with me. 

Which is when we disappeared into the rabbit hole discussion of “How do you know you’re ready to get married?” and “Why can’t you talk about it in public?”  She was looking for absolutes.  She was looking for rules.  She wanted to understand, but the shades of gray were confounding her.   “When you’re ready to understand the responsibility” and “Because it makes other people uncomfortable” were answers that are beyond Elizabeth’s level of understanding.  I finally resorted to “Because it is the way it is“, which is distantly related to the old standby -that I hate- of “Because I said so.”

We lay there in the soft lamplight, snuggled up together as she and I pondered what her new knowledge meant to her.  I held my daughter, whose body is still so slight and so small and so much my baby- but whose mind is starting to grapple with adult knowledge and adult issues without the understanding of adult language or adult emotions.  She turned over and curled into me, seeking the comfort of Mama.

She needed biological information and she got that.  She also got a glimpse of emotional information and she recoiled from that.  Some of that is being 9 years old.  Some of that is having a touch of autism.  Some of that is just her.  My baby’s growing up- and I’m not sure she-or I- are completely ready for that. 

And yes, I’m aware that this is the first of many talks we will have on this subject.  And yes, Ray clearly needs that talk, too.  I asked James to have it with Ray, and he looked extremely uncomfortable and said “He’s too young for all of that.”  I don’t think that Ray is the one who is too young for this talk… 

August 29, 2010

Walking a Mile in Her Shoes- Right into a Tree

Filed under: Autism,Exceptionality issues,Twice-exceptional — Teacher Professor @ 10:55 am

Elizabeth and Ray both had friends over to spend the night this past Friday night.  I treat this as though this were ordinary, but inside I’m squealing….

We have a tradition of “Friday Night Pizza/Movie Night” and so we ordered Dominos and settled in with a rental.  Because of Vicki’s job with the movie theater, we’ve seen more than our fair share of recent movies, so I was hunting for something that wasn’t too scary, not too controversial, and something that would interest the kids.  I accidentally chose two movies, that, according to Ray and Bruce, were “too girly”- “Annie” and “The Miracle Worker”.  Elizabeth hadn’t seen the “Miracle Worker” about Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan, so that was the chosen one, and Elizabeth and Katie settled in with their popcorn and multitude of cushions while the Ray and Bruce were vaulting over the couches.  Vicki and I sat at the dining table behind them all to corral the boys and to talk over Kentucky slushes.

Within minutes, the boys were hooked, too… “You mean, she can’t see OR hear?… Tell her to STOP that!  Oh wait, how would you do that?”  Within a few minutes, they were grunting at each other in mimic, and we had a side conversation about “How would you communicate what you need when you can’t hear yourself or see anything?”  They looked thoughtful and watched Annie Sullivan spelling into Helen’s hand… problemsolving.  I could see Ray making “letters” in his hand, feeling the process.

I laughed hysterically- quietly- when Helen was brought back to her family after learning how to behave, and she started reverting back to her tantrumy, get-her-own-way behavior.  “She’s testing her,” remarked Ray, clearly understanding the motivations and repeating what I have told him through gritted teeth on a number of occasions.

They cheered- CHEERED!- when the “breakthrough” came about and Helen understood that “water” was the name for the liquid.  Ray vaulted back over the couch and ran around the house naming things, sharing in Helen’s jubilation and language breakthrough.  He and Bruce and I had a quick conversation about how language is about naming things and seeing how things relate.  I could see Ray pondering the role of language and what it would be to be language-less. For Ray, my child to whom language has come so easily and so fluently, this was a new concept for him.  He laughed and said “That was pretty cool that Annie could teach her to talk.”  Vicki and I smiled at him in shared teacher joy and I said “Yup, that’s why I’m a teacher, because that break through is amazing.”  He smiled at me, hugged me, and I could see some respect in his eyes.  It was a moment…

Throughout all of this, Elizabeth was quiet.  She and Katie laughed at the right spots and got quiet at the right spots, but throughout, didn’t say a whole lot.  She didn’t have any questions, and when I asked, she said “It was a good movie.”  She listened when Ray and I were talking, but didn’t engage.  I didn’t think much about it…

Until Saturday, later afternoon, when I was at my office writing on a grant due the next week.  I got a phone call from her, wailing and weeping…

She had taken out the movie on Saturday afternoon and shown it to Emily, who was not part of the sleepover.  James overheard her saying “You gotta see this!” and they watched it again.  Then, they went outside to play when it was over.

When they went outside, the two of them apparently had been talking about what it would be like to be blind and deaf.  Elizabeth closed her eyes, and put on a hat and played in the yard…. where she ran right into a tree- hard.  She got a bloody nose, a scrape on her chin and a scrape on her knee.  She looks like she got beaten up. Just a side note- Picture Day is this coming Wednesday- of course.  We may have documentation of this forever.

I had to laugh as I was patching her back together when I came home, and I asked her which tree jumped out in front of her.  In her very literal way, she said “No, it didn’t jump in front of me.  I just didn’t see it.  It would be hard to be blind and deaf!  I won’t do that again.”

I was struck at the difference between my two.  They were both intrigued by the movie- both intrigued at how someone dealt with such significant differences.  And yet, Ray processed it all through with his language.  He thought about it, pretended a little bit and saw through the implications.

And Elizabeth… Elizabeth had to experience it.   Elizabeth didn’t have the language to understand someone else’s perspective.  She couldn’t imagine what Helen felt, so she had to live it.  She’s not normally a daring kid- I have never had to worry about her taking dangerous risks- normally, she’s too afraid to try new things.  Today, she took a risk, she decided to try it, and got a bloody nose.

I can’t decide if this is a good thing or a bad thing.  I don’t want her hurting herself, but I do want her trying.  I want to see her experiencing.  She is so sensory-oriented that it isn’t real to her unless she touches it, sees it, or gets knocked down by it.

I told her that we would try “being” blind and deaf again- but with more care.  After all, life knocks you down and you gotta get back up.  It’s important to know what others feel- even if you run into a tree.

As if to emphasize this point, TED’s video for today is RSA Animate’s exploration of the need for empathy.  Check it out…

August 26, 2010

Twice-Exceptional and Overlapping Labels

Filed under: Autism,Gifted,Twice-exceptional — Teacher Professor @ 3:33 pm

I have to thank Jess and her readers for an intelligent, honest, open conversation about labels.  It’s why I love true community and the conversations have certainly made me think…

Take the following list of characteristics:

  • Overly aware of sensory information
  • Awareness of and memory for details
  • Extreme interest in singular topics- some call “obsessions”
  • Penetrating insights
  • High levels of activity; often difficulty sleeping
  • Finds and creates patterns
  • Can focus for long periods of time on areas of interest

What am I describing?  These characteristics can be found on list of descriptors for both giftedness and autism.  Taken from one perspective, they’re symptoms of a problem; from another, they’re characteristics of tremendous strengths.  So much of it depends on the context.

I will never forget when I first took Elizabeth to be evaluated for Early Intervention at the age of 2- worrying, afraid of what they might tell me.  The evaluator asked, “Does she react strongly to things she hears or sees or touches?” 

“Well, yes.  She cries- a lot- when she’s put on her tummy and she can’t stand the feeling of sand or lace.  But those are early signs of giftedness.”   I had expected some questions about language, about withdrawal, but not things that I had rolled my eyes at, worked around, and nurtured.  She was clearly analyzing things and she was already starting to learn her letters.  Of course I saw signs of giftedness!

The evaluator gave me a look of pity and said “Well, it fits the profile of autism, along with her language delay and her times of withdrawal.”

I sat there, stunned.  Here I was looking at her glass as half-full- more than half, overflowing, and I’d just been told that her glass was half-empty and losing water rapidly.  Here were two “experts”: me in the gifted corner- for I know gifted education, I’ve taught, studied, etc., but I knew nothing about autism- and that expert over in the autism corner looking at these same behaviors- the SAME behaviors- and coming to completely different conclusions.  We would be in for a prize fight in which my daughter’s treatment programs, educational programs and people’s perception of her would be altered depending on which aspect was “winning” on that particular day.

For the thing that gets me is that she still, seven years later, is all of that- she still hates sand, still is focused on topics of her interest, doesn’t really follow the conversations of others, is hurt to her soul when people are “mean”, fixates on one singular idea and won’t get off of it until she has processed it to her liking, and has to search for words when she’s anxious or stressed.  She wanted to name her fish, her doll and her dog “Jingle”- all at the same time.  Oh, and is doing math three grades ahead and reads beautifully and writes well, but not imaginatively.  And there sits that glass- overflowing and leaking. 

But- and I want to emphasize this- she, and my son, are each one person- not two disparate halves.  As I said in a comment on Jess’ blog, I bristle at how much attention and focus there is on my children’s “dis”abilities, and how much lack of attention there is on their abilities, when it’s all the same child and sometimes the same behaviors. I bristle when I am made to feel that I’m pushy or “braggy” when I’m asking for what they need if it’s advanced and I’m given sympathy if it’s for an area of challenge- and I’m ignored if they’re doing “fine” because of the exhausting interaction between the two. 

One of her readers noted that there seemed to be an interesting overlap between giftedness and autism… I agree.  I think so much of has to do with perspective, and ability to cope within a given environment.  Neurological wiring is fine-tuned.  There’s perhaps a reason why Silicon Valley, home to Apple and ,  is home of some of the highest rates of giftedness and some of the highest rates of autism/Aspergers…

Silicon Valley, by the way, is a place , according to Matt Ridley, where ideas come to “meet, recombine and mate”.   I, personally, think that the unique combinations of giftedness and autism that is floating around has a lot to do with that... (The highest rate for autism is in New Jersey, which is home to Princeton, close to New York, and home of numerous toxic waste sites)

August 25, 2010

Labels- Love ’em and Loathe ’em

Filed under: Autism,Exceptionality issues,Gifted,Twice-exceptional — Teacher Professor @ 5:28 pm

(in response to Jess’ post about the gifted and talented label- I’m engaging in respectful dialogue)

`I wish you wouldn’t squeeze so.’ said the Dormouse, who was
sitting next to her. `I can hardly breathe.’

`I can’t help it,’ said Alice very meekly: `I’m growing.’

`You’ve no right to grow here,’ said the Dormouse.

`Don’t talk nonsense,’ said Alice more boldly: `you know
you’re growing too.’

`Yes, but I grow at a reasonable pace,’ said the Dormouse:
`not in that ridiculous fashion.’

– Lewis Carroll- Alice in Wonderland

Every child is special.  Every child has something to contribute and every child, no matter how far the difference from “typical”, has a uniqueness about them and a value and something that they contribute to other’s lives.  Every child.

Labels

But differences exist.  How we, as individuals, as a classroom, as a community, define and respond to those differences tells us much about what we value, what we worry about and what we fear.

There is a human, biological need to find patterns, to categorize, to seek commonalities.  It is related to how we learn; it is related to our very survival.  The ancient man who first saw a new animal, had to ask “Is this going to eat me, or am I going to eat it?”.  And we use language to divide, to understand, to classify.  The need to organize is so biologically innate, the lack of it creates its own sets of fears.  People who do not find order, do not find connections, do not find patterns live in fear.  “We”- those of us who do find order and commonalities, sometimes label this inability “autism”.  I know, I know- there is a lot more to the label than that, but this is a hallmark of it…

As a result of our need to classify, there is also a need to define “typical”, “normal”, “routine”.  Was today a normal day?  Does my body feel the way it does normally?  Is my child acting normally?  Herein lies the rub-“normal” is a comparative word- and the challenge is “Compared to WHAT?”  Compared to other children?  Compared to their own individual pattern?  Both sets of comparison implies value, but they can give you very different information.

We can look at groups of people and classify them a bunch of different ways.  We can classify by race, by height, by age, by how fast they learn to read, by hair color, by religion, by what genre of movies they like… there are a lot of different ways to find commonalities and differences.  On Sundays (Saturdays for some folks), people are sorted by religion.  Schools tend to classify by age.

When we educate children in groups, a “norm” is found.  Piaget found that at certain ages, children thought in particular ways.  We have 1st grade, 2nd grade, etc. as a result of his work.  Maria Montessori advocated teaching children in ages ranges rather than grades (ages 6-9, 9-12) because of the range of typical development.  And so we have graded schools and we have Montessori schools and we have all of those expectations about what a First Grader does, a Fifth grader, etc.  Expectations about learning rates, social abilities, language abilities… aspects that directly affect a child’s behavior in a classroom setting are made and we teach to those expectations.

There probably is no such thing as a perfectly “typical” child- a child who is of average height, averge intelligence, average achievement, average peer relationships and average language ability from an average family in an average community.   But we have an educational system that is based around all of these things being “normal”- with some “allowable” differences.  When we look at children’s age-related development in schools, we tend to look at language, peer relationships, emotional development, intellectual, and physical aspects. Kids who are introverted, or really, really good at doing hair, or afraid of dogs are just not dealt with in educational contexts- there are no labels for them because there is no need for educational services for them.

Only some kids don’t fit those age expectations.  Perhaps- oh let’s say:

  • 1 in 110 children don’t act in “typical” way of other children their own age- they have more limited language, sensory and social skills.  We find some examples of kids who don’t act like most of the other children their age, but an awful lot like each other, and we call that thing that they have in common “autism”.
  • Or we look at other children, say 1 in 12 who can talk just like their age peers, who can relate to their friends just like other kids their age, but who aren’t reading or doing math as well as their age peers- in fact, quite differently than their age peers, and we call that thing that they have in common “a learning disability”.
  • Or we see that 1 in 8 kids are a lot more active, have a much shorter attention span, but everything else is typical, and we say that thing that they have in common is “Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder”.
  • And we see that about 1 in 20 kids learn much faster than other children their age, have higher vocabularies and are more sensitive, and we call that thing that they have in common “giftedness”.

The problem is that people confuse the label with the person- the term is there to inform educators that this group of children NEEDS something different, not to “reward” or “punish” the child or imply any value about the child.  The child is acting in a non-age-typical way and needs to be taught using non-age-typical ways.  As long as we group children in schools by age, we will have labels.  Labels help us provide education that is better suited to that child- and others like her.  If we grouped by extroverted/introverted or gender or reading interest, we would have different labels because dichotomous categories, while easy, have outliers.

The biggest challenge is that not everyone fits the categories as cleanly as the original examples.  There are some children who ARE (blue), and some who are NOT  (red) in particular categories, but there’s an awful lot of kids in between (purple?).  So, lines have to be drawn.  And lines are drawn sometimes arbitraily, because all of these labels have to do with comparisons.  Categories are messy, categories are not always fair, but categories are how we function.  ALL categories of exceptionality- disability and giftedness- are societally defined because when you define a “norm”, you immediately define a “not norm”.  The causes of the “outside the norm” are found in biology, in environment, in personal choices.  Whatever the causation, the reason there is a category defined is because when kids are “outside the norm” of a typical classroom, you have to do something different- you have to educate differently.

Gifted Label

ALL parents want their child to grow.  ALL teachers are in the business of helping children grow.  A parent whose child is 3 grade levels below, or the parent whose child is 3 grade levels ahead, or the parent of the “typical” child all have the same goal- of having an education that will allow their child to be the very best that they can be.  Of having activities that challenge, but do not frustrate.  Of enjoying school without being bored or belittled.  Of learning something new and valuable every day.  Of having a classroom where differences are honored and celebrated as part of the range of human experiences- but are acknowledged.  Because not to acknowledge differences is to give in to the crushing sameness of the “norm”. A “Community” acknowledges and learns from each other’s differences; a “commune” stamps out differences and individuality.  If you don’t label a difference, you don’t have to educate to it.

Honoring and recognizing and educating to differences requires time and commitment and money.  Parents of gifted children have long been ignored in this process.  In the federal budget for 2009, 13 billion dollars went to special education; $7,000 went to gifted education.  I am NOT advocating taking away from special education- I am just trying to point out that there is a discrepancy between services to approximately the same number of children.  It is hard to give to those who “already have so much”.

Only, they don’t always have that much.  MY children, because of my educational background, because of my knowledge, because of my (rocky, but still better than some) financial resources will attend summer camps.  I will take them to Children’s Museums. I buy them math and language arts curriculum.  Friends of mine are taking their children with them to launch rockets in England.  Other people I know are taking their children biking through the lavender fields in France.  We can supplement; we can fill in the holes; we can provide an education to our children that will allow them to grow beyond what the school can offer.

But many, many families cannot.  They cannot for many reasons beyond their ability to control.  And there are many, many children with “gifts and talents” from families who cannot buy them materials or spend significant time with them to develop those abilities.  To take away, or not to fund gifted education programs in the public schools is classism, racism and discrimination at its worst because what we are telling our society is that the only people who get to lead, to grow or to learn at their own rate are those who can afford it. Because what we are saying is that only “some” children are to learn in schools, only “some” children get to learn something new today, and only “some” children have their educational needs met.  This is a battle that children with different racial backgrounds won in 1954 with Brown v. Board of Education; it is a battle that children with disabilities won in 1975 with the passage of PL 94-142; and it is a battle that children who learn too fast, too in-depth and outside the box have yet to win.

For you see, schools do not, by law, “have to” maximize education- they do not have to show benefit to all students.   For if there’s one thing we know, it’s that many, many kids do not benefit from school.  We know that those children from poverty who start off strong in early elementary school, but do not have their “exceptional” needs met, who are not challenged, who are not served- those children fail.  And they fail in huge numbers.  And many, many of them do not go on to finish high school; and of those that finish high school most do not go on to college; and of those who do finish college, most do not go on to graduate school.  They do not become the successes that they started off with the potential to be.  In other words, they do NOT just “make it on their own”.  And what have we lost when the system did not allow its best and brightest to go forward?  I’ll tell you- we’ve lost the ability to change the system…

Educationally, we know that kids who are learning quickly, who are creative, and who are not challenged are being let down.  But even culturally, they suffer.  It’s culturally acceptable to laugh at the “nerds”, the “geeks” and the “brainiacs”.  At the real school level, when the kid who is reading Jane Austen on the bus is laughed at, no one steps in.  No one stops the other kid from ripping the book out of her hands.  No one stops kids from snickering when the fourth grader asks a questions that relates our Civil War to the crisis in Iraq.  No one stops a teacher who yells at a kid who came up with an alternative way to solve a physics problem.  We would NEVER allow such responses if the child were blind, deaf or in a wheelchair.  We are working on having such behavior be unacceptable for children with autism, with intellectual and developmental delays, or with learning disabilities.  Bullying is bullying- and just because a child is who they are is no right for differences to be mocked, to be taunted, or to feel afraid- no matter the nature of the differences.

Twice-Exceptional

There are services out there to help my daughter with her challenges- she got Early Intervention services, she got speech, she got occupational therapy.  We had access to sensory rooms, modulated music, diet help, neurologists… it was an amazingly long list.  We had itemized lists in the forms of goals of all of the things she couldn’t do.  And in all of those years and all of that work and all of those professionals, nowhere did anyone ever ask, “And what can we do to help her strengths?”  That was left up to me.  That was supposed to be something that I could do- alone.  Even though her strengths helped her improve in her areas of challenge.  Even though her challenges were impacting her areas of strength.  Even though no one had ever quite worked with someone like my daughter before.  I was encouraged to focus on her areas of challenge- but no one from her therapies ever helped me identify how to help her grow in all of her areas. And when my son’s original tests showed that he was “normal”, only one psychologist ever said “Hmmm- there are some interesting patterns- let’s try a set of tests to see what’s going on- oh look!  He has anxiety and ADHD and Tourette’s and giftedness going on.   You’ll have a challenging time with him.  Here are some recommendations.”

I found help.  I connected with other twice-exceptional parents who shared my pain, I found psychologists who understood and I am an educator who can talk to other educators.  I told my story about my daughter and my son and our journey so that others would have similar tools.  I’m lucky.

********

Labels aren’t about value or love or pain- even though they can cause them.  Labels are terms designed to help provide guidance for services.  When labels outlive their usefulness and start to mean other things, they should be changed.  “Intellectual and Development Delay” is the label replacing “mental retardation”.  (It’s about time, too!)  “Mental Retardation” replaced the terms “Idiot” and “Imbecile”.  Can’t say I’m crazy about the label “gifted”, but it doesn’t have a good replacement yet.  But whatever the WORD that the label is called, it is describing a DIFFERENCE- a difference to be celebrated, a difference to be appreciated, a difference to be dealt with.  And if you celebrate one form of difference, if you acknowledge that there are different ways in which you interact with children, you have to celebrate them all.

After all, my child’s differences are no more or less important than yours.  All children are special.  All children have something to learn and something to share.  And all children, ALL CHILDREN must be appreciated- regardless of what form of services or educational interventions or “differences” they have.

August 24, 2010

Different- But the Same

Filed under: Autism,Schools — Teacher Professor @ 7:44 pm

I have this wonderful and unique opportunity to talk to teachers of children with autism about working with parents of children with autism- how to talk with them, help them, and work through being caught between the large school system bureaucracy and the needs of the child.  I’m going to start with the “official” language- that is found in textbooks, and talk about how that translates into reality- for parents and for them. 

Professional- Delayed and impaired language acquisition and usage

  • Parent – Hearing “I love you, Mommy,” once and not again for two years
  • Teacher – Multiple children screaming in class

Professional- Impaired social interactions

  • Parent –  Not having your child go to birthday parties, or if she does, being the only parent who can’t leave because your child needs you
  • Teacher–  Physical altercations- or teaching them why punching is not a way to say “Hello”

Professional- A spectrum disorder

  • Parent – Meeting another child with autism who is ahead of  grade level and your child cannot even talk
  • Teacher– Having 15 children all on individual plans all with different goals- all at the same time

Professional- A neurological disorder

  • Parent – Results that involve multiple doctors who never talk to each other, nor translate, but you’re still expected to make instant decisions- and good luck to you if you make a decision that conflicts with their professional opinion
  • Teacher– Results that involve multiple doctors who never talk to you, nor translate, but you’re still expected to know everything about their field of specialty and apply it to the classroom- with no money.

Professional- May exhibit sensory-seeking or sensory-defensive behaviors

  • Parent – Not being able to hold your child’s hand without a major meltdown, but having to stop and smell every seashell on the beach
  • Teacher– 15 children who are all putting pencils in their mouths or one who needs it quiet while another one needs rhythmic rocking

Professional- Exhibits a range of abilities

  • Parent – Hearing so many times, “Oh, like Rainman?”
  • Teacher–Trying to teach one child algebra while teaching another the letter “A”

Professional- Irritable and impulsive

  • Parent – Having your child scream at the top of their lungs in a rage that is so severe that words cannot find them, or a cold shower stop them- for 2.5 hours
  • Teacher– Never having a day be calm; watching the door like a hawk, so that your runner doesn’t leave and then having your “Sweet one” start throwing chairs

Professional- Exhibits repetitive behaviors

  • Parent – Watching “Matilda” 18 times in 10 days
  • Teacher– Having a child ask you- every single day- “What time is lunch?”

Professional- Fascination with self

  • Parent – Not being potty-trained at the age of 6 because she is so interested in her own poop
  • Teacher– Trying to keep 15 children to keep their hands to themselves, but not on themselves

Professional- Delayed Development

  • Parent –  Celebrating a child’s use of “more” sign language- at the age of 5.
  • Teacher– Having social stories using Clifford the Big Red Dog for 7th graders

Professional-Misunderstood or mysterious

  • Parent –  Having strangers back away and speak to your child in shorter, louder sentences when you tell them she has autism; loving him and you want to understand
  • Teacher – Having other teachers whisper around you- that you’re the “autistic teacher” and refuse to let your kids into their classes; loving him and you want to understand

Professional-Restricted in their interests

  • Parent – Talking about nothing but Legos, even during a funeral
  • Teacher – Talking about nothing but Legos during a fire drill or an assembly

Professional-Difficulty understanding nonverbal communication

  • Parent – Does not look you in the face, blank look when you smile at him
  • Teacher – Not understanding the finger to the lips of the lunchroom assistant and getting in trouble every single day

Professional- Typical physical development

  • Parent – Discovering masturbation as a pleasure-seeking strategy at the age of 12 ; not fitting on the playground equipment or in diapers
  • Teacher – Wanting to play with the little kids when they’re 12

Professional- Unknown in causation

  • Parent – Blaming yourself, your mother-in-law, the tuna you ate during pregnancy, the immunizations you approved; Trying something- anything- diet, vitamins, magnets…. Not knowing if what you’re doing is going to help, but believing that it has to.
  • Teacher–  Having three kids on three different diets;  Not knowing if what you’re doing is going to help, but believing that it has to.

Professional- May requires special education

  • Parent – Please help my child be the very best that they can be; please help them cope with this… Please do everything
  • Teacher–I know a lot of strategies, but I need your help.  I can’t do everything

August 23, 2010

Keep Your Hands to Yourself

Filed under: Autism,Schools — Teacher Professor @ 4:32 pm

I meant to blog about other things today, but this news drove it all out of my mind…

Kim Stagliano, mother of a child with autism, who is well-known as an activist, an advocate and a blogger, is working with the school district of Bridgeport, CT to investigate the {alleged} abuse of her daughter with autism, all caught on video, of a paraprofessional pinching her and spraining her fingers.  If this could happen to Kim’s child, it could happen to anyone’s child.

There are several things that I find particularly horrifying about this.  The first is that this woman was hired, paid, given money, to take care of this child.  This child was in her care for her to protect and she abused that trust- that trust that is given to all people to whom we hand over our children.  The video captures the child being placed on the bus, kissing her mother, saying (SAYING!) “Bye, Mom”, and then the parapro moving in.  That poor, poor child- feeling abandoned.   If someone chooses to go into education, there is an implicit understanding that that person cares for children.  Is worthy of trust.

Being a paraprofessional is an incredibly tough job.  They are paid less than store clerks, less than secretaries, and often less than maintenance workers.  They have little to no education.  They are given the most fragile and challenging of children to help, to guide and to monitor.  They have no training for this, and certainly no respect.  But… they chose a job in which children depend on them.  My child.  Perhaps your child.  Whether they’re superintendent or a para, children are depending on them.

The second thing that sends shivers down my back is that I wonder if she thinks she was doing the right thing- if she was “teaching” this child.  Reaching and communicating with a child who is non-verbal is hard- very, very hard.  I wonder if she was trying to “send a message” to this child to stop- stop touching, stop poking, stop… Intentional abuse is frightening. Evil lurks in the world.  But ignorant abuse is even more insidious because the perpetrator doesn’t even know that they’re doing wrong.  You turn your child over, not to a liar, but to someone who thinks they’re doing right.

The third thing that gives me the creeps is that the paraprofessional was captured on tape hurting the child when the para’s mother was driving the bus.  That implies, to me, a very, very wrong relationship between the para and her mother.  I tend to behave better when my mother is around, when my friend is around, when anyone I care about is around.  I’m a much calmer, much more focused parent when I have another grownup there to help, to balance, to watch me on my best behavior.  I never shriek at my children- around other people.  It makes me wonder what the parent/child dynamics are with the para and her mother. It also makes me wonder about the bus driver who is not correcting her own child- adult, true, but still a child.

Which leads to my final thought- that as a parents, ALL parents, we HAVE to teach our children to touch only in love- to keep our hands to ourselves if we are angry.  There have been days when Ray has driven me past my last nerve, that I have had to sit on my hands not to lash out at him.  There have been days where I understand child abuse.   There are days where thoughts like “I brought you into this world and I can take you right back out of it” are in my mind.  But that is where they stay- in my head.  I place the child in a room and I walk away.  I sit on my hands.  I teach with words- or hugs.  The idea of a child, any child, having her fingers hurt and her body pinched out of either evil or misguided teaching, by someone in a position of trust is horrifying.  And for child who cannot even tell of her own hurt- well, that is deeper than words.

I ask that you do two things-

1) Go to Huffington Post and make a comment.  Huff Po operates on a “more is better” philosophy and the more comments a story gets, the more publicity it gets.  This form of abuse has to become public and the outrage has to be out there- or it continues.

2) Send this news link to the Transportation Director of your local school district.  Every Director needs to a) educate their parapros about how to properly communicate with their children and b) consider how they will NEVER allow this to happen in their district.

Because this CANNOT happen to ANY child.  EVER.

August 20, 2010

Ray’s First Day of School Homework

Filed under: Schools — Teacher Professor @ 12:38 pm

The First Day of School is now history!  Please answer the following questions as thoroughly and descriptively as you can.  Remember to use complete sentences!

When I entered the room this morning, I felt…

I felt good.  My tummy felt good.  He explained to me that “Normally, my tummy hurts when I go somewhere new.  It didn’t today.”

My classroom is…

My classroom is hot.  Well, it IS August in South Georgia- it’s hot. It’s VERY hot…

I met a new friend today named…

I met Eric.  Eric?  Who’s Eric?  In response to my nosiness, he said “I just made it up.  I can’t remember the new kid.”

What did you learn about your teacher today?

She’s nice.  Way to suck up and make a good impression, kid…

This year, I’m excited that I’ll be learning…

I’m excited to learn algebra.  Yay!  That’s my Math Genius Kid!

I want to know…

I want to know what’s on the CRCT. 

One of my goals for this year is…

I want to pass the CRCT.  THE test that we struggled with last year- nothing like building anxiety from Day One… sigh. 

I was surprised when…

I was surprised we got homework. Ok, I guffawed when I read this- there’s  that sly sense of humor in his writing…

Questions I still have…

What’s algebra?   Oh well…

…And so we’ve begun third grade. 

 

August 19, 2010

Dear Mrs. Cameron,

Filed under: Gifted,Schools,Tourette's Syndrome,Twice-exceptional — Teacher Professor @ 11:42 am
Dear Mrs. Cameron,
I know, I know- you’re inundated with parent emails today- now that we know that you’ll be teaching our little darlings!  I hated being swamped with parents and the demands the first week of school…
 
Which is why I’m not asking you to do anything- I just want you to know.
 
I wanted you to know that my son Ray will be in your class.  Ray has Tourette’s Syndrome and anxiety disorder.  That can mean a bunch of different behaviors, and this summer, he’s been spitting.  He CANNOT control it, anymore than we can control a sneeze or a hiccup- which is to say that he can sometimes control it, but it takes away from his concentration on other things.  I have been asking him to use a Kleenex to spit into to reduce the impact on others, but he hates it.  I want you to know that he hates having Tourette’s.
 
I want you to know that the spitting has been declining, but a new one will start soon- these tics- the head jerks, eye rolling, throat clearing, etc- wax and wane.  As one goes away, another one takes its place. 
 
I want you to know that he’s very bright- stronger than Elizabeth in many respects.  So, he is not on a 504 or in special education because there is no academic impact… yet.  He’s also not in gifted because the anxiety shuts him down and to try and fail would hurt more than not trying.  We’re working with him on that.   I want you to know that I am heartsick that he is not getting services that can help him with his challenges, or services that can help him develop his significant abilities, but I that I do know how kind and thoughtful and challenging you were with Elizabeth last year, so that I have relief knowing that he’s with you.   I want you to know that he has a hilarious sense of humor that is pretty sophisticated, but tends to show it in writing rather than out loud.  He’s a brilliant kid, but he’s not going to show it off- you have to really look for it. 
I want you to know that he LOVES affection- that is private.  He HATES, HATES being the center of attention, but side bar hugs will make him yours forever.  Ignore the pulling away and the grunts.  He’s shy and anxious, not withdrawn and needs you to initiate the first move.    
 
What I want you to know is, please, please:
 1) Don’t draw attention to his tics- drawing attention to them makes it worse.  And please, please don’t yell at him or attempt to correct it- it is something that cannot be corrected. 
2) Work with me on managing its effects… sometimes, like the Kleenex trick, there are ways that he can manage it
3) Don’t let anyone make fun of him.  He’s pretty good at saying he has Tourette’s, but he really doesn’t have the self-advocacy skills to stand up for himself… yet.
 
*** What I wanted to write was, “And I will defend him if anyone DARES to hurt my baby”… but I didn’t. ***
I want you to know that he has asked that you and I not tell anyone… yet.  He’s on medication and the symptoms are less now than they were at the beginning of the summer.  He’s hoping that no one notices.  However, at the end of last year, he was almost ready for me to give Mrs. Lane a fabulous video called “I have Tourette’s, but Tourette’s doesn’t have me“, put out by the National Tourette’s Association.   He’s eight years old, and can almost pass… he’s not ready for self-advocacy.. yet.
 
I want you to know that he wants you to know, but he doesn’t want me to talk about it with you in front of others… hence the email. 
 
I want you to know that he’s such a good kid and with positive feedback, he will work his heart out for you.  
 
I’ll see you this afternoon when I pick him up from his first day of school- where we will not talk about it.  🙂  But I wanted you to know…
  
Claire
Update: Mrs. Cameron wrote the loveliest note back and wanted to know more about Tourette’s and what she can do to make him feel comfortable.  We’re off to a good start!

August 18, 2010

Happy New Year!

Filed under: Uncategorized — Teacher Professor @ 1:48 pm

I know, I know- for all of you non-academic types out there, the calendar reads “August”, but for me and mine, it’s a brand new year! 

It’s why I love teaching.  It’s why I loved school. Every August is a brand new slate.  A brand new clean organizer.  A brand new start.  This year, I will be organized.  This year, I will be on top of assignments.  This year, I won’t make the mistakes that I made last year.  Right now- it’s all possibility and anything is possible.

One of the secrets that teachers don’t tell is that we’re excited about the first day of school, too.  We don’t sleep that night before either.  We plan out our clothes and our lunches and our activities with tiny attention to detail so that we can feel in control of the vast unknowns.  We want to know who’s in our class, what are we going to be asked to do, will it be hard? 

I watched Ray go through his Trapper Keeper yesterday and saw him planning on a brand new school year- one in which he’s organized.  One in which he’s on top of things.  A year in which Tourette’s and anxiety and autism do not win- ever.

And I watch Elizabeth plan her clothing scrupulously as if the right top, the right pants will make the ocean currents of fourth grade girl friendships more navigable.  A year where autism and giftedness and being nine years old do not conflict and do not hinder- ever.

All of us, planning, excited, fearful, and anticipatory. 

…..

I have a quote that I have always shared with my students the first week of class by Shel Silverstein:

“If you are a dreamer, come in. If you are a dreamer, a wisher, a liar, a hoper, a prayer, a magic-bean-buyer. If you’re a pretender, come sit by my fire, for we have some flax-golden tales to spin. Come in! Come in!”

And so we prepare for the first day, my children and I, all with bated breath about this coming year- We want to know who’s in our class, what are we going to be asked to do, will it be hard? 

It’s all possible…

August 16, 2010

Movie Review- or What’s YOUR Word?

Filed under: Uncategorized — Teacher Professor @ 8:43 am

I just watched “Eat, Pray, Love” with Vicki last night and I’m searching for my “word”.

Eat, Pray, Love” is the story of Elizabeth Gilbert who searches for meaning of life after a terrible divorce.  She goes to Italy to learn how to enjoy life, to India to search for the meaning of life, and Indonesia for balance and love again.  She’s a writer and so she gets to go to these places and write about them for her living- as opposed to the rest of us who get to search for these things in our own backyard.  There are some issues I have with the book and the movie- not the least was her realization that God is within us, but not taking the next step to realize that such peace, prayer, and pleasure is within oneself all the time- sortof a spiritual Wizard of Oz.  But that quibble aside, it’s a thoughtful, interesting book, and a lush, gorgeous movie.  In the craziness that is my life, I enjoy taking a peek into someone else’s life every now and then…

There was a game that Liz played during her trip of distilling the essence of a person or a place down to one word.  She described New York’s word as being “achieve”, Los Angeles’ as “success”- similar to, and yet different from New York’s- Stockhold as “conform”, and Rome as “sex”. 

She did the same with people- her sweetheart was “antevasin“, one who lives at the border, and she decides that her word was “attraversiamo“-“Let’s cross over”. (Yes, I know that in the book, she was both, but I’m not nitpicking here).

I have always loved word games like this.  When James and I were dating, we often read to each other from a series of books called “If”… If you had to name three books you would take with you on a deserted island, what would they be?… If you could talk to one person from your past, who would it be and what would you ask?…?  They’re fun and interesting.  Perhaps it’s the dual nature of these types of questions that I like- at once shallow and thoughtful, light and yet insightful.  And so I’ve been thinking about it…

My word is Venn– as in Venn diagram.  I played with “connection” or “bridger”, but my gift, my skill, my interests, lie in finding the areas of connection, of lapover, of teasing out how are things similar, yet different.  How is autism like/unlike giftedness?  How is parenting like/unlike teaching?  How are the joys and sorrows of living dangerously close to the drama of bipolar?  When do talents become impairments- and impairments, talents?  How is the spiritual manifested in our world?  How is our culture embedded in our myths?  How much connection is there between work and life, heart and mind, spirit and body?   I live with labels- and how much overlap, similarities, and usefulness do these labels have?  Yup- my word is Venn

That one word captures most of me- but not all of me.  It is a trivial game that provokes thought.  I asked Ray last night as I was putting him to bed what his word is, and he thought seriously for a moment, and said “I don’t know- it’s not “soldier” (he was playing with his green army men), or “son”.  It’s more than that.  Maybe, “word”?”  And then, he was off to another topic, his ADHD kicking in and there was no going back.

I’m fascinated by these glimpses into his mind every now and then… are words so important to him?  Did he mean “Word”, as in “listen up”?  Or was it a random neurological echolalia?  I’ll ask him again later… and Elizabeth, and James all of those people whose hearts and minds I’m constantly discovering and relearning.

What’s YOUR word?

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