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special needs

When a snort is not a snort

Today one of my kids walked into my office for speech. I was in the middle of talking with a co-worker when he walked in, and I said a quick hi to him and then finished what I was saying.

He made an animal snorting noise in response.

(He’s 12, and while he can trend towards immature, he has never been a kid for whom making animal noises is common).

I glanced at him, telling him, “Try again, please.”

He snorted again.

In a moment of annoyance (which I really, truly can say happens very infrequently), because I was trying to finish my conversation and wrap up one of a zillion things that were going on, I told him,

“You will have an automatic detention if you do that again.”

I finished what I was saying to my co-worker, she left, and I turned back to him.

“It’s because I am tired,” he said, out of the blue, as an unsolicited explanation for why he snorted.

“If you’re tired, that’s okay, but you can’t make animal noises like that.” I told him.

His face changed, and he said, “I’m tired because my grandfather died.”

My heart stopped.

Shit.

I had totally messed up. He was trying to tell me something.

Look, am I not the one who preaches that behavior equals communication? Am I not the one who always says, look at what the behavior is trying to tell us? Am I not the one who suggests that we talk to our kids and meet them halfway, to understand what’s going on rather than punish it?

Yeah, he could’ve come in and said “I’m sad” or “Something happened” or “I need to tell you something.” But he didn’t. Maybe he couldn’t. Maybe he snorted because he didn’t know what else to do. Maybe he snorted because he had planned on talking to me but I was talking to my co-worker and it altered his plan. Who knows, and it doesn’t matter.

What matters is that for him, this behavior wasn’t typical. I certainly have kids who make animal noises and they aren’t communicating anything other than trying to be funny. For them, it should be approached in a whole different way.

But when a kid does something that they don’t usually do – when it’s atypical or something seems off, trust your gut.

I am sharing this because I am human. I’m sharing this because sometimes we all get annoyed, or snap. And that’s okay. It just matters that we rectify the situation as soon as possible. Which I did – on his own terms, we talked about it briefly (all he wanted to share was that sometimes he feels happy that his grandpa lived for 80 years and that his dad felt sad and he already talked to his counselor about it and felt [thumbs up] right now and didn’t need to check in more), a peer in the group shared that he had also lost his grandpa years ago, and then we moved on.

He moved on feeling heard, understood, and cared about.

I figured it out – even though it was a minute or two later than I would’ve liked.

That’s what matters.

Playing with the animals

Polly and I had about ten minutes left in our session today. She had worked so hard, keeping her brain focused, keeping the sillies in her thought bubble, and staying positive, that I gave her the choice of what she’d like to do.

“The animals!” she exclaimed, pointing up.

Do any of you remember those “Critter Counters” that Lakeshore Learning used to sell? It’s a container of rubber farm animals. There are two big and two small of each kind of animal, in each color, and my kids are in love with them.

I got out the animals and we dumped them out, and she got right to work.

“Okay,” she declared. “Come on guys, we need to get in our lines.” She narrated as she went along, and I happily listened, knowing that the presence of pretend play is anything but insignificant. So many of my kids never engaged in pretend play during “typical” developmental time – they just weren’t there yet. So it doesn’t matter how old they are now – if now’s the time, now’s the time. Let’s play.

“Where should I go?” she had a piggy ask. “Over here! Come on, you can go right behind me,” said the Mama pig.

She lined them all up in their respective groups, making sure that each line had a “Team Leader” (a grown-up animal) in the front. Animals frequently seemed to not know where to go, and other animals were very helpful in telling them which line was theirs.

The animals encountered a few problems as they lined up. “Did you just push me?!” Polly made a duck ask. “No!” the sheep replied. “I think you did,” the duck retorted. “I think you bullied me.” Then Polly looked up at me.

“Who could help?” I asked. She brought over a grown-up animal, who said, “I think it was an accident. It wasn’t bullying.”

The animals are talking to each other. They are problem-solving. This is not insignificant. This is Polly learning, and processing, and applying.

After a few more minutes of various line groupings, and discussions among the animals, I regretfully told her, Polly, we’ll need to clean up in one minute. It’s almost time for lunch.”

At first she had the animals hop or gallop back into their container. But then, she seemed to make a decision, sighed, and grabbed handfuls of them, throwing them back in.

“They’re back to normal,” Polly told me.

“What do you mean by that?” I asked, curious.

“They’re just toys now. They’re not alive anymore.” She said sadly.

I was fascinated. Speechless.

Not only did Polly, a 10 and a half-year old, engage in some seriously awesome pretend play, not only did she use language and perspective-taking to have the animals talk, not only did she demonstrate an understanding of problem-solving, BUT she demonstrated an understanding of what pretend play is. Polly knew that toys can be two things – real in her head sometimes, but also, ultimately, just toys.

I think tomorrow, we’ll play some more.

The goal of the assignment

On nearly every evaluation that I write, in nearly every IEP meeting that I attend, I talk about that phrase: the goal of the assignment.

Imagine that you are being taught how to juggle. You are taught the movement with your hands and the pattern. “Now,” they tell you, “we’re going to practice.” During your practice, they keep reminding you about the order of your arms and where to throw the balls. But they keep telling you to do other things, too. “Come on,” they say. “You need to be balancing on one foot the entire time.” When you try to balance, you drop all the balls. They remind you again of the order. “Don’t forget to smile,” they tell you. “You need to be smiling while you’re balancing and juggling.” You try to smile but then you can’t balance and you certainly can’t juggle. In fact, you can’t do anything right. You leave feeling defeated.

That is how our kids feel at school. Once they start to learn one skill, they are quickly asked to do it in conjunction with other skills – none of which they are confident and proficient in on their own, let alone combined.

During testing, both formal and informal, nearly every single one of my kids comes out the same way: when comprehension is measured without the addition of decoding demands, they show a higher comprehension level.

An explanation:

The kids I work with have language and learning challenges. Many of them have a language disorder, many of them have dyslexia or other reading disorders. I have an 8th grader who comprehends at a 2nd grade level, and many of our 4th graders are still learning sounds that make up digraphs and trigraphs (-dge, ch-). Amidst their learning what the letters sound like, what the sound combinations are, they are also practicing comprehension – understanding what the words mean. And, without question, this is where the breakdown occurs.

Imagine you are an English speaker, learning Hebrew. You have learned the symbols and letters and sometimes remember a few sight words: animals, colors, clothing. Now, you are given a paragraph. I can do this, you think to yourself. You spend every ounce of brain energy remembering the letters, sounding out the consonants and vowels, putting the sounds together, word after word after word. You read the entire thing. Yes! I did it. Then your teacher smiles, and says, “Okay, great reading. Now, we are going to answer some comprehension questions about what you read.” What? you think to yourself. I have no idea what that meant. You go through it a second time. You blend consonants and vowels. You sometimes forget how to pronounce a letter and get corrected. You have a word done. Oh, you think to yourself.  I don’t even know what that word means. You try to re-read it, seeing if it’ll jog your memory, but you have to just sound it out all over again. You think it means “dog.” You get to the next word. It takes you so long to sound it out correctly that, you’ve forgotten what the word before it meant.

You’re exhausted. You’re defeated. You feel stupid and unsuccessful.

This is what happens to my kids. Whenever possible, the goal of the assignment needs to be determined, I write in my evaluation reports. If the goal is decoding [sounding out words, blending sounds together], Jen should work on such skills without being asked to comprehend. If the goal is comprehension [making meaning/demonstrating understanding of a piece of text], Jen should have access to text-to-speech, or have a teacher/parent read the text to her, effectively bypassing her decoding deficits and truly focusing in on what she can comprehend. If decoding and comprehension are worked on simultaneously, Jen will likely demonstrate a lower level of comprehension, as all of her energy will be spent decoding.

So, I will continue to recommend, suggest, encourage: determine the goal of the assignment.

If the goal is neatness of handwriting, ignore incorrect spelling.

If the goal is comprehension, read the text to them.

If the goal is expression of ideas, let them say their answers aloud instead of writing.

If the goal is juggling, ignore their posture.

Determine the goal.

The best story ever

I just have to share this with you all, because I love every single thing about it.
In speech/language therapy, some of my kids have been working on story elements – characters, setting, problem, solution. Last week and this week, they planned out their own story or comic, and then turned their story elements into an actual story. The goal of this activity was not to have perfect grammar or punctuation or spelling; we were focused on including salient story elements. Consequently, one of my fourth-grade kids wrote an amazing story, in which his own adorably unique use of words, grammar, and syntax, shined through. He wrote it as a “Flow Map” (step-by-step boxes) but it isn’t uploading well so I’m just going to type it into 6 small paragraphs.

Enjoy :)

The Story
Once upon a time in N.O.L.A. there are a family “lets meet the fam they are awesome the firt one is the twins Lucas and Joe they love to hang out with me.” “then there is that girl named Amanda she loves to play ball with me”. The mom and the dad and the cat. The Dad’s name is Ethan the mom’s name is Jenny and the cat’s name is Mazie. The cat Mazie is mi hermano.

When they woke up this morning there is some wind blowing hard and there is making a lot of storms. Baton Rouge is starting to flood. And Mike and Mazie have superpowers, and they can save the day. And then they can solve it.

During the hurricane we are outside to try to stop the hurricane but suddenly we heard an evil laugh. It was Schweinstiger the evil cat who makes storms and hurricanes. Schweinsteiger says “we are going to make the lower southeast region ruined!! hahahaha!!”

They said “never!!” And then Schweinsteiger was trying to attack them with his storm powers. Then they are dodging. Suddenly Mazie the cat got hurt by this lightning. Mike said “Are you okay?” Mazie said “is this god?” Mike said “No it’s me Mike! We need to stop Schweinsteiger making hurricanes to make the Gulf of Mexico have no more hurricanes!” And then they went back home quickly and tried to get them into their superpowers.

They are trying to stop them and then Schweinsteiger has really good dodging! They were trying to attack him and his health is 92…80…75…62…55…48…30…27…18…1…then Schweinsteiger is dead! But then there is still wind going on. How are we supposed to stop the wind? Our house is about to flood. And we have no power! Mike has magic and he made the weather sunny to make it warm and replace it and the rains are going back p to the sky and the floods are going back up to the sky and then they put it on the newspaper. The newspaper is called Hero Dog and then everyone was cheering and has pictures and some viral videos of it. And that’s the end of the story! No more hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico. The End.

Credits:
George Lopez as Mike the Dog
Jennifer Lopez as Mazie the Cat
Kiefer Sutherland ais Schweinsteiger the Evil Cat
Meghan Trainor as Jenny (mom)
Nick Jonas is Ethan (dad)
Ariana Grande is Amanda (daughter)
Chris Brown is Lucas (brother)
Jason Derulo is Joe (brother)

Last week’s IEP meeting

Last week we had an annual review IEP meeting for one of our 8th grade students. Because he is now 14, he came to the meeting for a few minutes, to discuss his transition plan. This boy is one of the most empathetic students I have. He carries a tremendous amount of anxiety, which I am willing to bet has to do with his diagnoses and learning challenges, but also with trying to figure out how to be such a sensitive soul in this world.

He walked into the room, and took a seat. He looked around the table and said “hi” to his mom, and then quickly addressed every single person at the table and said “hi” to them, too. Our IEP team facilitator greeted him, told him that we would all love to hear a bit about what’s going well for him.

“So, maybe tell us, what’s your favorite class?” she asked him.

“Oh, uh…Science.” he replied. Then, scanning the room, realizing that several of his teachers were there, but not his science teacher, he quickly added, “But, uh, I love Math too. And Reading is okay. And Language Arts. And hey Jen, I like Speech, too.” There were a few smiles, but I felt myself getting teary. I totally got what he was doing. He was terrified of offending one of us. So much so, that, his math teacher responded, “It’s okay. I know you don’t love math. And I would never be upset with you for saying so.”

Our team facilitator moved on. “You and your counselor met to talk about what you’d like to do in the future. You mentioned that you would love to stay at [our school] for high school, and that after high school maybe you would work with computers or animals.”

His counselor jumped in. “Yup, and we talked about way down the road, where you might like to live. Remember, you told me that one day you would like to live on your own, and not with your parents?” he nodded, agreeing with her, and then caught his mom’s eye and froze. Oh no, I could imagine him thinking. What is Mom going to think to hear that I don’t want to live with her? 

“Uh, Mom…” he tried to explain. “I was just thinking that one day I’d like to have an apartment. But, uh, it’s not that I don’t love you. Because I do. You and Dad have been really good to me. But it’s just…” his voice trailed off as his eyes quickly darted from person to person.

His mom smiled, and gave a kind laugh. “It’s okay, buddy. I would hope you want to live on your own some day!”

After talking a bit about his career aspirations, and his love for computers and cartoons, his counselor sensed his mounting anxiety and backed up a little bit. “Now, all of this is going to be a long time from now. And we’re talking about things that might happen. But is it okay if your ideas change?”

“Uh…I guess so…” he said.

“Will anyone be upset with you if you change your mind about what you want to do or where you want to live?”

“Uh…I guess not…”

“Right. Because we’re just thinking. None of these are decisions that we have to follow. We’re just imagining. But just because we’re imagining does it mean you have to do these things?”

“Uh…no?”

“No, it doesn’t. And we don’t even have to worry about those things. Those are your long-term plans, but right now, our main focus is that you’re going to finish 8th grade and then go to 9th grade.”

“Um. Okay. Yes.”

He headed out of the meeting then, after saying goodbye to every single one of us, and giving his mom a hug.

I think we were all overcome with emotion. And I totally got it – I understand that desperate need to please everyone, the fear of what people will think of you if you don’t give equal attention or love or praise. For the rest of the meeting, we talked through his IEP goals, but we kept coming back to his sensitivities and anxieties. Because among his autism, among his language and learning disabilities, sensitivity and anxiety are at his core. They affect every part of what he does every day. And the same is true for so many of our kids. I truly believe – there are times when noncompliance or overreactions, or other behaviors, are just a mask for that panic inside. And I am not autistic. I don’t have a language disorder. And it’s taken a long time for me to be able to identify my anxiety and sensitivity and put it into words. So I can only imagine what it’s like for our kids. And I feel really blessed to get to help them do just that.

“I’m confusing”

One night while we were in Florida, we went to dinner at an old favorite restaurant. It’s buffet style, and I was at the dessert station. After thinking of the greatest dessert idea ever, I put vanilla ice cream in my bowl and waited in line to top it with apple cobbler. In front of me in line was a boy, probably about 9 years old. He was attempting to scoop apple cobbler onto his already overflowing bowl of ice cream. After a few minutes of determination, he noticed me waiting, gave me a huge grin, and said, “Sorry!”

“That’s okay,” I replied. “I had the same idea as you.”

“My mom makes apple cobbler!” he informed me.

“Cool. My mom makes blueberry crisp.”

He continued scooping cobbler, and as he tried to use his hand to get the cobbler from the spoon to his bowl, his finger touched the ice cream and he squealed.

“It just felt hot and cold at the same time!” he exclaimed. “The ice cream was cold and the cobbler was hot! That was confusing!” He thought for a moment, and then added, “Just like me. I’m confusing.”

“I’m confusing, too.” I told him.

He smiled at me, got his spoonful of cobbler, and went back to his family. And I got my cobbler, went back to my family, smiling all the way.

“That’s private!”

The concept of “privacy” is a hard one to teach. It’s a very abstract concept, that has many exceptions, and no one hard-and-fast rule. Most of our special needs cherubs, especially those on the spectrum, thrive on hard-and-fast rules, and exceptions are tricky. Abstract concepts, like privacy, are hard for our kids to understand and generalize. They may act in ways that seem disrespectful or rude, but really, they just don’t understand. This may look like a kid who picks his nose in front of his classmates; a kid who scratches himself in private areas in the middle of the lunchroom; a kid who shares exactly what he did in the bathroom; a teenager who announces to the class that she has her period. This is a kid who might have heard, many times, from many adults: “That’s rude,” “Don’t say that,” “That’s inappropriate.” The problem is – those terms are equally as abstract and confusing, and have just as many exceptions to the rule. If a child is picking his nose during class, and hears, “Don’t do that,” it may be unclear to the child exactly what you’re saying. Should he not pick his nose in this specific class? Should he not pick his nose right now but he could in a few minutes? Is nose-picking in its entirety something he should never do? These are answers that you or I might have figured out on our own when we were kids, but neurologically, his brain doesn’t make those conclusions. Can you imagine how stressful and anxiety-provoking that would be, to just not understand?

Sometimes, when we start to really teach and explain the concept of privacy, the pendulum swings to the other extreme. Instead of sharing every single bodily function, nothing gets shared. Everything is overgeneralized to being “private.” This is when you ask the kid what he had for dinner last night and he said, “I don’t want to talk about it, that’s private.” Or when a parent asks his son what he has for homework, and the response is, “That’s personal.” It’s when the student tells you, multiple times throughout the week, “I need to talk to you in the hall” and what he needed to say was either, “Max is absent today,” or “I have P.E. next,” – none of which are actually private. But the drastic shift shows that he’s working on it, trying to get his brain to understand.

As with so many of the concepts that we try to teach our kids, perspective-taking is an underlying necessity. If you think about how you act in your own day-to-day life, the reason you don’t walk into a meeting and announce your bathroom habits is because it’s rude and inappropriate, sure, but ultimately it’s because others would have weird thoughts about you. And those weird thoughts may lead to a short-term and/or long-term consequence about how your colleagues view you. Without even realizing it, in a split second you evaluate what you want to say, then evaluate the situation, realize that in this specific situation, saying what you want to say would result in others having weird thoughts, and you decide not to say it. And you do this automatically.

But our kids don’t. So we talk them through it. We say to them, “Hey Noelle? When you keep tapping Sam on the shoulder, he might have a frustrated thought. He is trying to work, and it is very distracting to him to keep being tapped.” We say, “Noah, when you pick your nose at the lunch table it makes the other kids have grossed-out thoughts. They might feel they don’t want to sit with you if you’re picking your nose.” We label various settings. We say, “Sarah – this is an unexpected time to be making people laugh, because we are trying to work. You can save your joke for lunch time; that would be a more expected time to make people laugh.”

We teach our kids that actually, everything is expected and unexpected at one point, which is why curricula like Social Thinking® are so helpful, because they don’t tie our kids down to a set of rules that in reality have a million exceptions. Instead of teaching them what to do, we teach them how to think so that they can figure out what to do. We teach our kiddo that if he runs into my therapy room and announces to the group that he just had an accident in the bathroom, the other students will have uncomfortable thoughts, because having an accident is private, since it’s about his own body and bathroom-related issues, and other kids don’t want or need to hear about that. And we don’t teach him that punitively, we teach it factually, in a calm voice. We then give him the flip side, which is to label what he could do, and how he could think about it. We explain that announcing that he had an accident to a teacher, after she is in the hall away from other people, is completely expected in that situation, and would not make the teacher have any uncomfortable thoughts; the teacher would have happy thoughts and proud thoughts and the teacher would help him solve this problem (i.e., call the nurse). So it is not as though telling someone he had an accident is always unexpected or never “okay”. It just depends on where, with whom, etc. And that’s what we teach. And our kids need help, and they need to be talked through it time and time again. But they get it. They can get it. And they learn how to think and consequently how to act and then they are more independent, and more successful. And that’s, well, just awesome.

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