Monday, August 20, 2012

What's so special about YOUR friend with autism?

I know what's special about my kids with autism.  And I'm talking special interests here -- fascinations, epic collections, subjects of deep knowledge.  I'm sure you have some of your own, and people give you gifts in kind, celebrating your passion.

Yet for some reason, we as caregivers are tempted to put a ceiling on these passions when they become uncomfortable for us as spectators.  We decide they love Power Rangers a little too much, or they spend a bit too long staring at their Pokémon cards.  I get that.  We want them to have age-appropriate interests and a broad range of them.  The cool thing about many people with autism is they often know what they like (and what they don't) with certainty, and at an early age.  Sure, some fleeting affairs of the heart will come and go; but they have a true love. What's so wrong with that?

I recall trying to use my son's Star Wars interest to create a math worksheet when he was in elementary school.  I thought using this graphic illustration of a word problem would be motivating for him.  The real problem was that he knew much more about Star Wars than I did (still does) and got stuck on my inaccurate labels.  (Luke Skywalker wouldn't buy another light saber, for the record; he only has one.)  So when you do use your student's interests, make sure your intel is legit.

Or let your student lead the way!  Allow him or her to showcase that vast expanse of knowledge, either to a small or larger audience, as a way to celebrate individuality and competence.  I know my son's summer school teacher used his special interests to mutual advantage during his reading class.  By allowing him to select books in his preferred topic and genre, she was able to get more engagement from him.  (See what Paula Kluth has to say on the topic for teachers.)

And at the end of the session, she sent a postcard.  The note referred to my middle schooler as a "fantastic leader" and "a pleasure to have in summer class."  Imagine that.

So get to know your classmate or student with autism by starting out with their special interests.  And be prepared to listen!

Monday, August 13, 2012

Back-to-school Top 10 List

I was all excited recently to see a top 10 word list regarding autism and bullying.  And I will admit that I was a little disappointed when I read the list.  While I understand the desire to teach specifically students with autism what negative social things are out there, I don't find it helpful.  So here's my Top 10 List, inspired by Good Friend's mission:
  1. Educate. I really don't believe that "kids are mean" cliché.  I believe they're either ill-equipped with the proper knowledge of their differently-abled peers, or are lacking the proper social-emotional tools to be kind. In both cases, we as parents, professionals, and typically-developing peers need to educate others and ourselves.
  2. Empower. Once staff and students are trained to recognize bullying behavior or disability harassment, they need to be empowered to act.  Give them the freedom, the infrastructure, and the tools to respond effectively.
  3. Advocate. Students with autism need to self-advocate to get their needs met and their wants known. Their classmates and educators need to advocate for them when they see them in distress.
  4. Believe. Believe in the abilities and the spirit of your student or friend with autism!  Believe you can make a difference in his or her life!
  5. UPstander. Bystanders stand by when they see bullying or disability harassment.  We hope you stand UP!
  6. Friend. One of the saddest statistics pervading the autism community is how few friends youth with autism believe they have. While establishing a friendship may be intimidating to typically-developing students, know this: Your classmate with autism requires surprisingly little of you; a high-five, a protective stance, an encouraging text message or note, or a once-a-month outing could be transformative.
  7. Unity. I know it sounds a little High School Musical, but we're all in this together. True story.
  8. Diversity. We're all different from one another. Difference isn't deficiency; it's diversity. Celebrate it!
  9. Ability. Focus on ability and not DISability. It requires a change of perspective and will make everyone feel more positive.
  10. Accept. This is is my most important word. Accept what you cannot change, such as differently-wired brains and all that comes along with them. Teach and support those with autism spectrum disorder; don't try to make them something/someone they aren't.
Forward this to your friends, teachers, and colleagues!  Maybe focus on a word a week for the fall as community-building exercises.  And let us know how it's going!

Monday, August 6, 2012

It All Matters

As educators and administrators start to get in the new school year zone, they'll go over the Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) of the students in their classes to get an understanding of some of the more specialized needs.  (Or at least they should be doing that!)  A good IEP is one that focuses on achievements and strengths while making challenging goals with supportive services to keep the student moving forward.  It would be sad and certainly not helpful if the narratives were filled with little more than disparaging notes and records of failures.  The IEP should give the accepting teacher a good base of ideas to keep the student learning and growing.

Assuming teachers are getting such positive documents, they should start in September with every intention of celebrating achievements.  If we subscribe to the belief that success begets success, and we know that there is some attrition of academic skills over the summer, then we have to be ready to set learners up for success immediately in that first week of school.  What accomplishments did they have over the summer?  What wonderful skills are they demonstrating those first days?

As the parent of two children with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs), I've learned that what seem like little things matter big time.  When my mommy friends were celebrating their typically-developing children's milestones, I began scratching my head while I observed my toddler with a differently-wired brain.  Once we had a diagnosis, I understood that we were on a different trajectory, but it would still sting to hear some of those early reports of my child's same-aged peers self-dressing or -feeding.  I was still looking in my child for the same achievements my friends were noticing in theirs.

What I wasn't trained to notice at the time was how my son was recognizing patterns and generalizing those to other aspects of his life.  For example, when walked to the refrigerator and took the number 9 magnet, turned it on its head, and said "six".  Or when he jumped out from behind the kitchen wall and said, "Boo!" to me, just like his favorite character Sulley from Monsters, Inc.

photo by Jan H. Andersen
But last month, when his 13-year-old self began singing in the shower, I knew what an achievement that was.  It meant that ...
  • he was imitating.  His younger sister is quite a nightingale, and almost always exercises her pipes while showering.
  • he enjoys music.  His Early Childhood and music teachers during his early years at school were far more likely to find him under the desk with his hands over this ears than participating in class.
  • he can speak.  Many people with autism struggle greatly to communicate with spoken language.
I share this because ...
  • as parents, we need to celebrate achievements like this.  It all matters.
  • as educators, we need to continually point out students' successes to themselves, their parents, and their peers.
  • as peers, we need to recognize that while our friends with autism might not be doing the same stuff we are, they're doing amazing things and usually have to work WAY harder at achieving those things than we do.

What victories are you and your student celebrating?