Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Holiday Tips (and a few great excuses) for Families

Holiday Tips (and a few great excuses) for Families
By: Nicole Beurkens, M.Ed.

The holidays can be both a joyful and stressful time for all families. This can especially be the case for families of individuals with autism or other neuro-developmental disabilities. If you’re racking your brain to come up with some excuses you can use to avoid a holiday event you dread, here are a few you can try out this year:

Top 10 Great Excuses to Use at the Holidays

  1. There is a Sponge Bob marathon on TV, and we have to be home to tape it…all 24 hours of it.

  2. The neighbors have had the flu, and I’m pretty sure we’re going to come down with it.

  3. The kids hid the car keys—both sets.

  4. Oh, was that today? I thought you said NEXT week!

  5. The dog ate the green bean casserole we were supposed to bring, and we’d hate to show up empty handed.

  6. I’ve gained a bunch of weight this year, and just won’t fit with 7 other people at a card table made for 4.

  7. We’ve all developed a rare turkey allergy—can’t even be in the same room with it!

  8. Sure, we’d be glad to come. Of course, we’ll have to bring our set of 3 new not-yet-house-trained puppies with us so they don’t get lonely.

  9. We’ll be celebrating with the other side of the family this year.

  10. We’re boycotting the holidays due to over-commercialization.

Don’t think any of those excuses will fly? Here are some real tips for reducing the hectic-ness and increasing the happiness in your holiday season:

  1. It’s okay to say “No!”

    Sometimes we feel compelled to say “yes” to every holiday invitation that comes our way. This can especially be the case with family events. You know your child’s limits and need to take those into consideration when setting up your holiday social calendar. You can say no while still being polite, and save yourself and your child a ton of grief in the process. Attend the events that are meaningful and important to you, and make other arrangements for your child if necessary. If you’re dreading it, then that’s a good sign you should gracefully opt out this year!

  2. Arrange small quiet gatherings with family and friends.

    One family I know celebrates the holidays with family extended family members in “shifts.” They invite a few over at a time in the weeks surrounding the holiday. This way they get to see everyone without overwhelming their children. They stay in their comfortable familiar environment, while family members take turns coming to visit them. No one is left out, and the experience is much more enjoyable for everyone involved.

  3. Provide gift ideas.

    If you’re worried about some of the gifts your child might receive this year, try to avoid the problem by providing family members with gift ideas. Don’t want a bunch of electronic games and toys? Make a list of games, craft supplies, books, and other things you would prefer for your kids. I also know some families who ask for gift cards that can be used toward things like therapy, therapeutic supplies, restaurants, or some of the favorite places their children like to visit.

  4. Plan ahead.

    When going to someone else’s home for the holidays, make sure you think about your children’s needs ahead of time. Bring plenty of activities, snacks, books, clothing, etc. that will help them feel comfortable and keep them occupied. It can also be helpful to find a quiet place at the location you will be visiting where you and your child can get away from the group. This way you have somewhere to go when you notice that your child is getting over-stimulated or just needs a break.

  5. Don’t be afraid to communicate your needs.

    While there will always be some people, family members included, who don’t understand the need for accommodations, most people want to be supportive. If there are things that will help make the experience more enjoyable and tolerable for your child then let others know that. This can include making requests that people not wear perfume, that others not give your child food you didn’t bring with you, or that they allow your child some time to “warm up” before trying to talk to him/her or give hugs. Think about the things you know cause your child to feel uncomfortable or react negatively, and communicate some simple things others can do to accommodate him/her.

The holidays are supposed to be a time of peace, joy, and happiness. Don’t sacrifice those things for yourself and your child by accommodating everyone else. Plan ahead, trust your instincts, and when all else fails—come up with a great excuse!

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Learning to Think: Part Three - Continuing Mindfulness Throughout the Day

Learning to Think: Part Three - Continuing Mindfulness Throughout the Day
By: Courtney Kowalczyk, M.Ed.

Fall is well underway here in Michigan, and the beautiful fall colors can be seen for miles around. It is such a wonderful sight to see children, young and old, out and about enjoying the wonderful scenery. My young son has become increasingly aware of the seasons, and it has been amazing for me to watch him make discoveries about the changes in his world. During this time of change, I continue to think about the mindfulness that is so important for every child. Watching my son think, learn, and process information related to the changing seasons has brought me more joy than I could have ever imagined.

In my last article, I discussed two strategies to increase students’ mindfulness throughout the school day. It is so important for our students to be learning to think independently, and not just learning rote skills that they cannot apply. Here are a few more strategies that I would like to share with you that will help increase the mindfulness of your students.

  • Play “I Spy” with your students. Students at any age love to play games. The “I Spy” game can be adapted for any age of students. This game consists of one person visually locating an item within a room, and then providing clues to his or her peers about the item. You could spy a small plant growing on the teacher’s desk, for example, and then provide clues like “this is green” and “it continues to grow”. The audience then guesses what the person is spying, and whoever guesses correctly gets to be the “spy” next. This game provides students with opportunities to practice basic problem solving skills and information processing.

  • Rearrange the daily schedule. As teachers, we often get into a rut of doing the same thing at the same time each day. Consistent schedules are often positive elements of an effective classroom; however, the same thing day in and day out can become monotonous, static, and even boring for the students and the teachers. Providing simple variations to your classroom schedule can be an effective tool for increasing the flexibility and mindfulness of your students. For example, if you consistently have a snack before doing math, try having the snack during or after your math lesson. By providing a schedule that is fairly consistent yet flexible, you will be providing your students with opportunities to increase their abilities as well.

  • Vary the way you teach lessons. Often as teachers, we have a favorite spot of two from which we prefer to teach. These may be in front of the class, by the white board or projector, or walking amongst our students. There are, however, many different places within the classroom where you can teach from. For example, you could teach while sitting at a student’s desk, sitting in the back of the room, or sitting on the floor together as a group. By providing variations to the way you deliver instruction, you can provide students with variations and opportunities to do think independently as well as get a glimpse of what may be happening in other portions of your classroom.

By providing your students, and yourself, with some simple variations and opportunities to be mindful individuals, you will be setting the stage for a community of lifelong thinkers. I look forward to sharing more thoughts with you regarding learning and thinking in the months to come!

Thursday, November 13, 2008

A Journey Through Infant Development: The Sixth Month

A Journey Through Infant Development: The Sixth Month
By: Michelle VanderHeide, BSW

Development is a complex process, and truly amazing when you break it down. Each little gain that a child makes is a miracle, especially when you begin to look at the complexity of the brain. The ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (VLPFC) is the part of the brain used to read and understand emotions. This is one small part of the brain; but what if this part of the brain isn’t firing at the same time as the part that comprehends the words coming in with the facial expressions? A lot of meaning within communication would be missed. Research shows that the brains of children with autism do not fire as quickly as children who are developing neuro-typically. It’s not because of anything the parents have done (or not done) while raising their child with autism that caused their child to develop this neurological disorder. Instead, for whatever reason, the child’s brain is not firing as quickly as a child on a neuro-typical pathway. As a result, a child with autism can miss many of the vital points of development.

Over the past several months, I have written about observations I’ve made about my son. With each child that develops neuro-typically, you will see common goals being reached. Are these things you have noticed in each of your children as they developed? Are you or other people the most important thing in your child’s environment? Below are more things that I have observed about my son, now 6 months old:
  • You continue to become more aware of your surroundings. I can no longer lay you down in bed and simply walk out. You know whether or not I’m in the room and you scream the second I walk away. If I come back, you stop screaming once you see me and give me a huge smile, like saying “I just won!”
  • A month ago, you were just starting to roll over; but now you roll over and over and over again. You find yourself in many interesting places around the house, such as getting stuck under a blanket, under the coffee table, or you’ve rolled away from your toys and can’t seem to get back. You look to me for help, and I’m always happy to come and pull you out of the trouble you’ve gotten into.
  • I took you out for coffee with me the other day to meet a girlfriend of mine and her 8-month old son. The two of you found each other immediately, and began to communicate instantly. You’d scream, and then he’d scream back. You’d hit the table with your hand, and then he’d do the same thing. The two of you also began to fight over the same “toys” – you both seemed to like the crinkly paper best!
  • You are so interested in everything around you! You love to explore new things, and I can’t keep up with your grabby hands. I’ll be changing your diaper, and you’ll pull a blanket over your head. If you are sitting on my lap at the table, everything within reach is in your mouth or on the floor. You are also grabbing at my face, jewelry, or hair all the time. I know we are going to be in trouble when you start crawling!
  • It’s clear that you recognize people who are familiar to you. You always give daddy the biggest welcome when he comes home. You also give a scream when your sisters are coming toward you. The other day we visited grandma in the hospital, and she looked different than normal. You looked at her and studied her, but would not let her give you the hugs and kisses you normally receive. Once grandpa took you, you settled right down; but you wouldn’t take your eyes off grandma. The amount of time you study and observe things is fascinating. You did eventually warm up to her.
  • You played peek-a-boo with daddy, and laughed harder than I’ve ever seen before. Daddy started pulling the blanket off his own head, and almost immediately you were reaching for the blanket to pull it off. Daddy would make a funny face or say “boo,” and you would crack up. Then daddy put the blanket over your head, and you figured out immediately to pull it off and laugh even harder. Soon daddy would run off and hide after he put the blanket over you, and you would immediately look around to find him. Once you found him, you would laugh harder yet. We all were in tears laughing with you. I noticed later that if I walked into a different room, you would keep looking at the door waiting for me to walk back out. What an awesome and fun development!
  • You love listening to the sound of your voice. I hear you practicing all kinds of sounds now: “aaaaaa, dadadadada, phthththth” - as spit flies! You think that’s really funny!

If you find that some or all of the developmental goals that my son is making have been missed by your child, consider the RDI® approach to bring your child back to the neuro-typical pathway of development. This is a great quote to keep in mind as we forge through the journey of development, which at times can be very trying: “Forget the potholes in the road and celebrate the journey instead!” (Dove® PROMISES® Message) The RDI® journey may be hard, but the outcome won’t disappoint!

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Experience Sharing Communication

Experience Sharing Communication
By: Erin Roon, MA CCC-SLP

Take a moment to read this short conversation between a mother and son. As you read, think about what is being communicated. Are you able to get a picture in your head?

"Hey mom, you’ll never believe this! I saw a baby turtle in the road."
“Really, I wonder how big it was.”
“Very small, only this big (indicates the size of a half dollar with hands).”
“Wow, I’ll bet he was scared being in the middle of the road. Maybe he was lost.”
“I didn’t think about him being scared; maybe I should move him out of the road. Do you think he was trying to get to the lake?”
“I think it would be very nice if we go back down and move him out of the road. I bet he was trying to get to the lake to take a swim. It’s a hot day, and I think turtles like to swim just as much as little boys.”

Vignettes like this are very common place among parents and children. This is an example of experience sharing communication at its best. The majority of the communicating we do is for experience sharing purposes.

Now read the following conversation between a mother and her son. Do you notice a difference?

"Hi Jimmy, how was your day?"
"What did you do at school today?"
"You didn’t do anything?"
"Did you read any books or do any math?"
"What book did you read?"
"I don’t know."
"Did you go to gym today?"
"What did you do in gym?"
. . . And on and on it goes.

Does this exchange sound familiar? This dialogue is an example of imperative communication. Were this mother and son conversing? Yes. Were they communicating? No. Is the son in this vignette even really listening to what his mom is asking? He doesn’t need to put a lot of thought into his answers, especially since these are probably the same types of questions he is asked every day. He understands the format for this type of conversation: someone asks a question, I answer; another question is asked, I answer; and so on. The parent in this scenario isn’t inviting responses; rather, she is expecting them. She is looking for information, but is only receiving one and two word responses that hold little or no meaning.

Imperative communication is made up of questions and demands. In general, people use this type of communication approximately 20% of the time in their day to day interactions. Imperative communication is a necessary part of daily life, but it should not make up the majority of our communication experiences.

On the other hand, we use experience sharing communication approximately 80% of the time in our daily interactions with others. The ability to share our experiences with someone is a uniquely human characteristic. No other species has the capability of sharing thoughts and feelings. Sharing experiences allows us to communicate about not only our external world, but our internal world as well. It provides us with the opportunity to talk about our past, present, and future. Not only are we able to share our experiences, but we are able to learn about others’ experiences. We can determine what thought processes they are using, and how they may be feeling about a shared experience.

The percentages listed above for experience sharing and imperative communication relate to the average person. For parents and others who live or work with children with autism spectrum disorders, those percentages tend to be reversed. It is not uncommon for parents of children with an autism spectrum disorder to have 80% of the communication with their child be imperative, and 20% be experience sharing. This generally happens because parents want to talk with their child, they want information, or they want their child to do something; and asking questions or making a demand seems to be the only way to do this. Often, parents feel that if they don’t ask the child a question, they will never know what they are thinking. It’s not just parents who communicate in this way; but other people in the child’s environment, such as school staff, do so as well. What tends to happen for children whose environment is filled with imperative communication is that they learn to talk in this way. Much of what they communicate is related to getting needs met, or sharing the same information over and over. Children in these environments learn that when someone asks a question, they need to answer; but they do not necessarily learn how to think and provide a thoughtful answer. They also tend to learn that many people ask the same types of questions, so that they can give the same response over and over without needing to think about it.

What are some ways that you can begin to change the way you communicate with children on the autism spectrum? Begin slowly, by deciding on a particular time of day that you will practice using experience sharing communication. Try to make comments about the things you are currently doing. If you find that you are having difficulty not asking questions, try just being quiet or talking about yourself. Spend some time listening to snippets of other people’s conversations in a coffee shop or mall, or even while watching TV. Think about what you hear, and how people are communicating with each other. Chances are, they will be using experience sharing communication.

While imperative communication is necessary at times, to make requests and gather information, we need to think about how much we use it. Striving to use experience sharing communication at least 80% of the time will bring about a much richer experience for everyone involved. Helping children with autism spectrum disorders begin sharing experiences, in a meaningful way, works to improve the core deficits of autism and the quality of life.