In a Liam Sort of Way

Many of you know that Sesame Street has a new character, Julia, who has autism. In one of the opening scenes when the characters introduce Julia, Abby says that Julia acts, “In a Julia sort of way.”

Yesterday, Brant Hansen (http://branthansen.com/), who I listen to on Word FM, who has Asperger’s, shared that he absolutely loved the phrase, “in a Julia sort of way,” because one cannot describe any one person on the autism spectrum the same way as anyone else. Everyone is unique in their interests, behaviors, talents, and habits.

I decided that today I would share a little about “Liam’s Way.”

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Liam tells me “good” when I ask him how he is doing.

He sits quietly for long periods of time.

He will tell me more if I have him go through every class he has, in order.

This is how he tells me about his day.

 

Liam interrupts others when they are talking.

He will come right up to another conversation

In the middle of his when he starts talking.

This is how you know he considers you a friend.

 

Liam says that his stomach hurts.

He says he feels sad.

His face is a full and constant frown.

This is how I know that Liam might be hungry.

 

Liam shares everything that is on his mind.

He asks questions that are sometimes surprising.

Sometimes we are embarrassed by what he says out loud.

We try to share with Liam that there is a time and place to say what he’s thinking. He has to choose those moments carefully.

 

Liam doesn’t look us in the eye when he talks.

He is very sorry and sad when he makes mistakes.

He will play video games all day if I let him.

Liam is sensitive and kind, and a fierce understanding of right and wrong.

 

Liam tells me that he loves me about 20 times a day.

He leans on me whenever he sits next to me.

When he walks by, he touches my shoulder or hand.

These are the ways he lets me know that he is mine.

The Time I DIBELed My Child

I’ve learned a few things about “standardized” tests and students on the autism spectrum. It started with the time that I was practicing using DIBELS on Liam.

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He cruised through all of the activities at his level, until we came to the retell. I asked him to retell what he had read and he shut down. “I don’t know,” was all I could get out of him.

What did he mean? He had just read the passage nearly perfect. I wasn’t asking him difficult questions. I just asked him to tell me about what he had read. The thing is, I didn’t “tell” him that. Rather, I asked him to retell the story.

I’ve come to realize that what he thought I was asking was, retell me every word from what you just read. My response would have been, “I don’t know,” in the face of trying to recall every aspect of a cold read.

Surprised, I re-approached: can you tell me three things about what you just read? “Sure, Mom.” He went on to tell me five things.

Then, he caught sight of my marking how many words he was saying. Being motivated by numbers, on the second retelling, he said more. By the third story, he was trying to see if he had beaten his previous two times.

What I realized, and then re-realized later with the help of Clare Landrigan and Tammy Mulligan’s book, Assessment in Perspective (2013), is that I hadn’t shared with Liam what I wanted him to do. I was vague with my directions, so as to not give away too much, to avoid getting a false (positive) result on the assessment.

However, when a literal brain comes up against an unclear task, instead of problem-solving its way through the task, it can become overwhelmed with all of the possible options, and shut down.

This is what Liam did. At first. Then, I quantified what I expected: tell me three things. He exceeded my expectation. I revealed, I’m going to be measuring your response by counting the number of words you say. He stretched what he said to meet and beat his output each time.

I will write later this year about other assessments I have given to students on the autism spectrum. The one theme that has emerged is: be transparent and clear in expectations. Let the student know why you are testing, how you are testing, and what the goal of the session is.

Isn’t this basic information that we should give to all of our students?

How do I Inference?

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While Liam was doing very well in math, and could “pronounce” most words he would see in second grade, he still struggled to understand inference questions.

How did the character change in the book? The author didn’t say, so how could he required to answer?

Nevertheless, his teacher persevered. She modeled her thinking for him. She allowed him to listen to how other students would answer the question.

Then we figured out how to make inferencing seem more logical to a second grader: we gave it steps.

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I cannot say that this approach worked every time, because sometimes pictures do not provide enough information. However, having listened to how illustrators work to bring the words of the book to life, they are a great place to start, especially for a child like Liam, who is more attuned to visual information.

Then, she taught him to replace the “picture” in the process with a phrase or a sentence from the text.

Finally! He knew what was expected and could take steps toward accomplishing the thinking he was being asked to do: explicit moves he could make to infer.

This attempt to make inferencing more “tangible” helped him speak up more in small group and better understand the expectations of the questions. That did wonders for his reading skills and helped him “keep up” with the other readers in more than decoding and fluency.

It was a breakthrough that we were extremely grateful for, that has served him well as he has gotten older.

“How May Times Do I Have to Tell You?”

If we’ve said this phrase once, we’ve said it a thousand times. The answer is, with Liam, at least when he was younger, “every time.” He needed to be reminded every time to do something due to lack of executive function skills (the brain’s administrative assistant).

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At the same time that difficulty being organized kept Liam from remembering morning or bedtime routines, or how to stay organized at school, there were strategies that helped him remember things, until routines could be internalized.

Because he had to be told every time about specific things, we gave him a checklist like the one below, to help him remember what needed to be completed at critical times:

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At school, Liam either had a teacher (usually his itinerant autistic support teacher), a classmate, or a checklist to help him pack up what he needed to bring home.

These external systems helped him remember without much reminding. They helped him learn independence and stop feeling frustrated about forgetting things.

They did wonders for his self-esteem and for us staying positive at home. No more, where’s your math homework? Did you remember to bring home your reading book?

The answer to the question became, no more times – I can do it on my own.

Some of Liam’s Playing Habits

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This picture came up in my feed and it reminded me of things Liam liked to do around this time of his life (2nd grade).

He always made up games. Whether it was adding to existing games (like this 12-deck solitaire game) or creating new ones, he can disappear into his room for hours to play a game.

He gets disappointed when others don’t have the same level of enthusiasm for his games as he does. For example, he asked for us to play a family game of Monopoly with his three-tiered board. After about five hours, we were ready to quit. We promised to play again – to finish the game – at some point. He kept the board set up in his room, perfectly preserved for weeks, waiting for that to happen. He was upset when we never found another block of time to get back to his game. We tried to share that we weren’t having fun with such a long game, and no one was playing with Mea. His reply, “But you promised.”

When Liam was outside, from about second grade through sixth, he would make up imaginary obstacle courses. Whether we were at the pool or on a playground, Liam would mark out a “course” in his mind and ask for us to time him completing it.

He would ask Kieran to run the course too; of course, Kieran couldn’t see the course and would then be accused of cheating by cutting corners or skipping steps.

Often, I would forget what “time” Liam got. I made sure he came in a few seconds less than the time before. I would sometimes have to ask, “What was your last time?” With talking or watching the other kids, I forgot to count.

Eventually, he’d say, “Really, Mom? I went that fast?” I would confess that I’d lost track of time.

It’s a wonder Liam tolerates me as well as he does, when I don’t follow his directions well.

Remembering Old Friends

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Liam always had about two good friends at a time in his life. His first friend was the one who I previously described, who loved video games and also had social skills struggles. We went on vacation with that friend and he and Liam would have play dates from time to time.

As is sometimes the case with younger children, as these boys did not attend the same elementary school, they slowly grew apart.

He had also kept two other friends from first grade. I know that he was assigned the same class as they were in second grade. This was extremely generous on the part of the school. One boy, just had a ton of patience. He was consistently kind to Liam. But he was not the type of friend that Liam would keep. He had different interests. Although he always remained friendly with Liam, they weren’t really friends by the end of second grade.

Another friend was a precocious, highly verbal girl. Because they had reading and math together daily, and she could keep up with Liam academically in many ways, she started to see what Liam had to offer, in terms of intellect. While she did most of the talking, she frequently sought Liam’s opinion about what they were learning. She invited him to her house to get to know him better. She was a very good friend.

Kieran always seemed to have one best friend – they were fiercely loyal to each other. The two of them were always the nucleus. Others were attracted to them, but could not break in.

My heart wished for this type of friendship Liam for as well. Wade moved away in the middle of second grade. Kieran still misses him (talked about him this past Tuesday) and has not had a similar friendship since. I pray for him to find one again.

Mea is fast friends with, literally, everyone: teachers and peers alike. She has never had one best friend. Everyone takes turns. Once, I was teaching a guided reading group with some of Mea’s second grade classmates. I had to break up an argument among two of them over who knew Mea longer and, therefore, who was her better friend.

Moreover, Mea can go into a completely new environment (such as a playground), and wind up with a best friend after about 30 minutes.

My children’s way of making and holding friendships reflects their personalities.

“Seeing” Kieran

We determined to take Kieran to a specialist after his pediatrician scored a behavior rater from his teacher and us as possibly having ADHD.

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I don’t know that the results “changed” anything in terms of his behavior, but it was a helpful experience for a few reasons.

First, we implemented a 504 for Kieran, which allowed him to receive extended time, movement breaks, prompts and scaffolds to complete work, and an understanding that he wasn’t just “not listening.”

Then, we learned the “when… then: strategy, which was successful in helping Kieran understand what we needed him to do in a given time, versus what he wanted to do. I shared about it before, but in case you are reading this for the first time, it goes like this: “When you clean your room, then you can have time to play video games.” “When you write three sentences, then you can water the plants.” “When you put on your shoes, then we can go to the playground.”

We have used this simple strategy in many situations. “When you finish your dinner, then you can play with your brother.” It’s not that we weren’t using a version of it before, but using the specific words, “when… then,” have helped Kieran understand that he has one job to do before he can do what he wants to. It has helped him focus on that one task that we need him to accomplish.

Next, instead of recommending medicine, the pediatrician suggested some relaxation strategies. We learned through her interviewing and testing of Kieran that his mind never shuts off. He said that he constantly hears a voice talking in his head. We learned that this is not “voices” in the troublesome sense, but his internal voice having a non-stop conversation in his brain.

We found out that he was lying in bed until midnight some nights, although we put him to sleep at 8:30 p.m. The relaxation techniques were meant to help him “settle down” at night to be able to fall to sleep. We also used melatonin (which was also recommended with Liam, so we felt comfortable with the recommendation).

Finally, we were told that he was bright and that he had ODD, which often occurs hand-in-hand with ADHD. This gave us hope that we didn’t raise a child that argued, simply because we were not good parents. He was wired in a way to be curious about his world and question why things were the way they were.

The doctor praised Kieran for how hard he worked during the testing and for how kind and friendly he was (after he warmed up). It was a positive experience and we felt that she understood him (and described him to us) in a way that we had not heard other speak – in a way that gave us tools and hope for his future.

Kieran in Kindergarten

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As we probably should have expected, Kieran struggled with the patience, attending, and complying demands of Kindergarten.

He had trouble sitting in his seat for extended periods of time.

He did not like to write.

He talked to his friends and didn’t complete tasks in the allotted time.

He was trying, but the distraction of a large class, and the lack of interest he had in completing some of the work, worked against him.

His teacher shared that during read alouds, he provided insightful responses.

He was a good friend to his classmates.

He would jump at the opportunity to do any job/task in the class. That was one way that he was “distracted” from his boredom – he was given something to do that required his whole body to be involved (running an errand, cleaning something, putting things away).

Nevertheless, he received a behavior chart.

He had one in preschool, before we moved him to a different preschool, because he started to say things like, “Was I a good boy today?” “Did the teacher like me today?” “Do you still love me, mom?”

I had shared that Kieran always responded to positive reinforcement. We worked to reinforce him at home. He also responded to being redirected from his distraction.

He got a count-down clock, to help him manage his time. It showed him visually how much time (color on the clock) was left. It helped him figure out how to time his activity through a task a bit better.

Thankfully, his teacher moved to giving him five blocks instead of a chart. If she had to remind him of something more than once, he would lose a block. If he had three blocks at the end of the half-day session, he earned a privilege. He usually played with the blocks, but he understood them better than the chart.

His teacher worked very hard to recognize his strengths. We did too.

Kieran started to learn that we were all just working to help be successful in school.

A Few of Her Least Favorite Things

We realized that, while with most things, Mea was very easy-going, there were a few “new” things in her life that caused her distress.

1. Snow and being bundled up in cold weather clothes. When we first got home, we had transitioned Mea from summer in Ethiopia to winter in America. Mea’s home country never goes below around 50 degrees anyway. They experience rain and little amounts of sunlight in the winter (our summer), like Alaska, but not winter-like temperatures.

As a result, we battled to bundle her in cold weather clothes – she hated feeling constrained! She was also a bit scared of snow when she first saw it. She likes it just fine now.

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In Ethiopia, people don’t usually have animals inside the house. At any rate, Mea never lived with animals. So when we brought her home to a big dog and a cat, she freaked out.

2. Nemo was a big black dog – she did not like him at all. She cried every time he came near. We eventually had to find him another family to live with because she was so scared of him.

3. Our cat was usually out of sight. But not always. One time, she thought she would be friendly and approach Mea, who squealed. When the cat walked away, Mea peered around the couch to see if she was still there – she came back (thinking she found someone to pet her), only to be greeted by Mea squealing again.

Mea eventually got used to the cat, but doesn’t care for them much. A few years ago we got another, smaller, yellow dog. Mea loves Becca and cannot play with her enough.

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It is funny how things that other kids usually like, because they were foreign to her, caused her great distress, when she first came home.

A Different Kind of Enrichment

In addition to any curriculum enrichment (pretesting out of a unit or extension activities once he learned the new information) that occurred for Liam in math, in second grade, he was given the opportunity to tutor first graders in his former first grade teacher’s classroom.

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This developed a different aspect of Liam’s personality – what he was like with younger children or those who needed help.

He took on a patience and tenderness that we had never seen before.

Whenever he would work with children, he would talk softly and in a slightly higher, sing-songy voice. It was interesting to see him change something about himself for someone else.

He also spoke more slowly. I sometimes I cannot understand him, simply because of how fast he talks. During tutoring, he seemed to know that he needed to slow down to share new information with these younger friends.

Most importantly, he explained things in a manner that helps the kids. In this one setting, he developed an ability to take someone else’s point of view (Theory of Mind) and explain things so the kids could understand.

We still see this with his two siblings and math. I stopped being able to help with math homework by second grade. Someone will come home with a question in math and I will call out, “Liam, we need help with math.”

Some of Kieran’s math (pre-algebra) is complex. Mea’s homework contains “new math.” Regardless, Liam explains it with the same softer, slower voice, in a way that (almost) makes me able to do this math.

His siblings always get their work done and learn through Liam’s help.

Liam has expanded his “tutoring” to music. He will sit Mea down to explain the rhythm of a piece. Or, he will get his clarinet out and play for Kieran what the song should sound like, so Kieran can hear it in his ear as he practices.

This side of Liam is remarkable and was a gift to both the students and himself (to help him grow socially) when he was a second grader. We were so thankful for this type of enrichment opportunity for him.