Time on Task

Somehow, between June 18th and September 4th, my son changed. Some of the changes I could see unfolding right in front of my eyes; other changes happened instantaneously. Caleb is more self-reliant,  polite, controlled, and has dramatically reduced his defiant behavior. He walks with my husband and I without running off. He actually seeks out approval by asking to help me. I’m not sure what created the change, but I have some ideas.

First of all, for the first time, I made sure that Caleb and I did “study time” every day for about an hour and a half a day. I theorize that for Caleb to truly know something, he has to practice it for longer than his neurotypical counterpart. Caleb needs to strengthen his neural pathways with repetition, and once those pathways are forged, that information is locked in. (I want to say that I agree with those who say, “if you have met one autistic child, you have met one autistic child.” All I am say is how I see Caleb and how I respond to what I see.)

Another change we made was his token economy system. Instead of just earning stars which can be traded in for books from Amazon, we have allowed him to also save up cash; this money is then used for large trips with the grandparents, such as to the aquarium or zoo.

Finally, we started expecting more from Caleb. He now has to groom himself every morning; we help him, but he cooperates now. I mean, yes, Caleb is going to complain every time I brush his hair, but it is just a verbal complaint. No hitting, no screaming, no falling to the floor. He also participates in chores; he is in charge of picking books up and putting them away because otherwise the puppy likes to chew on them.

Whatever the reason, the change is incredible. It gives me such hope for the future.

I remember having to digest that I had a son with “severe autism.” We didn’t know if Caleb would ever speak, let alone be able to lead a “normal” life. I remember the tears and the fear and I just wish I could go back in time and tell myself that everything would be okay. Back when Caleb was first diagnosed, I read horror story after horror story about autistic children being violent and having to be institutionalized. I knew nothing about autism, other than it was a dream wrecker.

For those of you who are just going through the beginning stages of autism-acceptance, please take heart that it can be okay if you put in the work. There are many studies that show that the greatest indicator of success is time on task. Want to be the best piano player ever? Practice every day for as long as you can. Want to be the best writer, the best rollerblader, the best hot dog eater? Time on task.

Temple Grandin, who is a goddess, suggests that autistic children get somewhere between 20 – 40 hours a week in therapies. Obviously she doesn’t mean that a child go to Occupational Therapy 40 times a week; there are plenty of therapies we parents can do at home with our children. Everything from core exercises, to art projects, to playing games – every exercise has a lesson to learn. How to hold scissors, how to wait for your turn, how to follow instructions – all of these are important lessons beautifully hidden in fun time.

To be truthful, many of my attempts to teach Caleb have failed. It has been through sheer force of will that I have been able to get through all the rejection I felt and still try to help Caleb be happy and interact with the world. It is time on task for us parents as well; I don’t blink an eye when Caleb has a meltdown in public. I attend to his needs by sitting down next to him and telling him I love him (which is what he asked me to do when he has a meltdown), but I also do not give in and let him have whatever sparked the meltdown. I am loving but strict, and I believe you can be both. I am strict about him using the potty or eating well; that said, I don’t regulate his electronic time except for when it is electronics’ bedtime. For me, finding that balance has all been time on task.

I cannot speak as to how other autistic children work or feel or anything – I just know what has worked for Caleb and me. I hope that maybe what has helped us can maybe help others as well.

P.S. I am not a behaviorist, I just sound like it.

When is it Worth the Fight?

My father gave me two pieces of advice that I will always remember. He sat me down before I went off to college and he told me: a) you may win the battle but lose the war, and b) never ever mix your drugs. (I’m serious. That was our entire conversation.)

When dealing with people, I tend to be results oriented; I tailor my behavior in order to get the desired outcome. For instance, if my goal is to be on good terms with a person, I will let things go because it isn’t worth the battle. When dealing with Caleb, being results oriented has been very helpful.

When I think about what I care about, it really boils down to me wanting Caleb to be healthy and happy. I also want him to grow up and be a good partner to someone he loves. So, I want to raise a healthy, happy gentleman.

How do I do this?
First of all, this is something that I thought about while Caleb was still in my belly. I never told him “no”; I always said, “no thank you.” I try to always use my manners with him and with other people so that I am modeling the kind of behavior I want him to emulate (see: Bandura). Caleb doesn’t think about being polite – it just comes naturally to him because we have conditioned him to use his manners.

Setting Caleb up for success is something that is constantly on my mind. This involves identifying and removing obstacles that can negatively affect Caleb’s goals. One way we do this is by buying Caleb pants that have a stretchy waistband because he has trouble unbuttoning his pants when he needs to use the potty. Or we transition to the family bed 45 minutes before bedtime, so we are getting in the mood for sleep.

But what happens when I cannot control the situation? What happens when Caleb is demanding something that I don’t want him to do or have? One of my main methods is a twist on The Passionometer Protocol. Basically, if Caleb wants something more than I don’t want it, then I give in. Exceptions to this rule is when Behaviorism comes into play. If Caleb is acting out and then I let him have his way, I am teaching him that in order to get his way, he can just throw a fit. It is so important to watch for unintended consequences when using positive reinforcement.

This weekend we are having a garage sale. This is very difficult for Caleb as he feels a true emotional connection to everything he owns. He even wants to keep clothes that he grew out of years ago. I have to figure out a way to stay firm and expose Caleb to some of the these parts of life that will be difficult for him, but also not push him off the cliff into Meltdown Land. I have let him take 5 or 6 small toys back, but I also said “no” to quite a bit. Caleb is exhausted because this process is mentally taxing for Caleb. I need to remember that and set him up for success by making sure he goes to the potty every 45 minutes, eating and drinking, and trying to not put one more piece of straw on that camel’s back.

Sometimes the battle is not with Caleb; sometimes it is for him. I have to constantly butt heads with our school, Lanigan Elementary in Farmington Schools. His special needs coordinator is super nice, but the principal and I do not get along. Lanigan does not have an ASD classroom; I refused to have Caleb go to a different elementary school because he has the right to go to school with his neighbors and friends. I finally had to send a letter to Lanigan cc’ed  to the superintendent office asking for them to test Caleb across all academics. Caleb is at a 3rd grade level in math and reading. Caleb also has anxiety, and just the idea of the tests makes him nervous. Caleb says that he will not take the test without me next to him. The superintendent’s office said that I could be in the building but not next to him. Am I supposed to battle my child into taking a test or do I stand up for my child? I mean, obviously, I have to stand up for him.

Do I look forward to fights I have ahead? Not at all. I hate fighting. I hate tension. I’m the person that just wants to walk away from a fight. It is exhausting, emotionally and physically. But, I have to be a Mama Bear and protect my cub. When I talk to other parents of special needs children, I hear horror stories about schools not supporting them enough. So many special needs kids we know go to private schools, but truth be told, there is no way we have the money for that.

I really wish schools would change their way of thinking, but I’m not holding my breath. So, these next coming weeks, I will be looking into the law on Michigan education, specifically with special needs children. I have found that having facts is much more important than having a strongly held opinion. One more thing – I can be a hot head sometimes, but my husband is always cool as a cucumber. When I am nearing my boiling point, I tell my husband our code word, and he knows to take over. In order to truly be results oriented, I can’t go around pissing off administrators. I have to be an adult. I have to be mature so Caleb can be a child.

That said, I really really want to show up for our IEP meeting wearing a Xena outfit. 🙂

Learning with Mad Libs

With a ton of education about education, I am able to think of ways of making homework fun. Now, I’m a dork, so I think flashcards are fun as heck – Caleb not so much. Sometimes you have to hide the homework like you do with vegetables: sneak it into something they like. So, instead of making flax seed muffins, we are playing Mad Libs.

Why are Mad Libs genius? Because Caleb loves playing the game, and he doesn’t realize that he is actually learning. We use Mad Libs Junior, which have the added bonus of giving suggestions for each category; the four categories are nouns, verbs, adjectives, and parts of the body.

Noun: person, place, or thing.
Verb: action or state of being
Adjective: describes a noun

I keep it that simple, and I ask him to define these words randomly during the days. It is all about creating strong neural pathways so he doesn’t forget; it is important to reinforce these pathways on a regular basis, but doing it too much can lead to mental overload. When Caleb hits mental overload, he is done for a few minutes and then we reset.

I mostly use the Mad Libs without letting Caleb look at the sample words. First of all, the more random the words, the sillier the story is. Secondly, giving Caleb the time to come up with an answer of his own is teaching him how to problem solve. Patience is key, and it is hard to know when or if I should rescue Caleb when he is clearly struggling. Right now, I’m playing it by ear; if Caleb is getting emotionally upset, I will try to calm him down and point him in the right direction. But, see, then I worry that I am giving him positive reinforcement for melting down. Of course, that is a whole other topic that I am looking forward to writing about: the difference between rewards, positive reinforcement, and incentive systems. (I literally wrote the chapter on this.)

Serious Play is a concept that Lloyd Rieber has researched and has published many articles in peer-reviewed journals on the subject. Serious play is a way to making learning fun, because after all, we want our kids to be life-long learners. Another fun way to learn is through graphic novels, but that is also a whole other post. For more information about Lloyd Rieber, you can visit his website.

Finally, Mad Libs are great because they don’t take long to complete. There is a tiny delay of gratification that is really helping Caleb; autistic kids aren’t really know for their patience.

Happy Mad Libbing!