Saturday, November 15, 2014

Tate's Lunch Buddy Program Described

Since my last post, Thank You to The Class of 2020, I have had numerous requests from people asking me to describe the lunch buddy program. The following describes Tate's lunch buddy program. Part of the beauty of a lunch buddy program is that it can be "tailored to fit" and changed as needed. 

I first heard of lunch buddies when I was at an autism conference before Tate ever began school. As soon as I heard the program described I was “sold” on the idea. I began asking for a program for Tate when he started first grade. After we discussed the lunch buddy program at a meeting and considered it for first grade, it was agreed that we would wait and begin it in second grade. There were several reasons involved. We already had several social skills “programs” in place that first year of all-day public school and they were very time-consuming for the staff. The speech teacher had launched a social skills group for Tate, pulling peers from his class two or three times a week to play games and encourage Tate to interact with his peers. We had an adult coach with Tate at recess prompting him to play with peers so he would not wander aimlessly, isolated or lost in repetitive behaviors. Tate was struggling to learn the names of his classmates so photographs of all his classmates were obtained and he practiced naming them and matching children to their names as part of his day. The school staff was working hard on so many things that the lunch buddy program was put off.

When Tate began second grade, at my insistence the lunch buddies program was added. The purpose of the lunch buddy program was for Tate to learn social skills that he could then generalize into other settings. Our hope was to teach Tate skills by coaching him and eventually fading the prompts. Let me be clear: a lunch buddy program by itself is not going to teach your child all the social skills they need to learn. It is one of many things we have done to help Tate learn social skills. The skills he has learned from the lunch buddy program have been reinforced over and over throughout his day since we began the program. Mastering skills was not something accomplished in one year. Tate has had a lunch buddy program for five years and it has taken a very long time to see a lot of results.

The lunch buddy program has been successful, in that Tate can sit amongst friends in a lunch setting and be fairly comfortable. Tate has learned skills and the coach has been faded much of the time. Tate still has autism but he is able to handle himself and respond appropriately in so many situations now due to all this coaching. As it turns out I often hear from the parents of the typically developing children who have participated that their children have learned so much from Tate. They are thankful that their children have learned about autism and have become very comfortable around my child with special needs. Among the things these children have learned are compassion, understanding, patience and perseverance. They also have a pretty good idea about what autism is and could probably generalize what they have learned to interact with other people with special needs.

I am a firm believer that the children who participated should be told about my child’s disability. I do not believe the lunch buddy program would have been successful for us without the full-disclosure that I insisted upon. Explaining WHY Tate is different than they are and WHY Tate NEEDS so much more instruction than they do was key. Children who are educated about autism are far less likely to bully a child with autism in my opinion. I do not have statistics on this. I did what made sense to me. I insisted from first grade on that Tate’s classmates be told that Tate has autism and then given an age appropriate definition of autism. I wrote a personalized definition with illustrations in a picture book format for the kids. It started out very simply in first grade and got a little more detailed with each passing year. See the book in my post: What is Autism. When Tate was in first grade I wrote a note to parents that went home in the first graders’ backpacks, explaining autism and letting them know their child had a classmate with autism. I wanted to take the mystery out of the reasons that Tate was followed around by a Para-Professional throughout his day. I wanted parents to be ready with an answer if--and when--their child came home and asked questions about Tate.

The lunch buddy program has evolved a lot over the years. We learned what worked and what did not and tweaked it as we went. In grade school there were parent permission slips that had to be signed so the students could participate. Tate’s whole class wanted to be involved and got those permission slips back quickly. The kids LOVED teaching Tate. When we began, in second grade it started with one teacher or Para-Professional sitting with Tate amongst several of his peers. His peers were coached before lunch some on how to try to involve Tate in their conversations. Tate was very hard to engage back then. He would talk to adults but not children easily. The kids would ask him questions they had rehearsed with a teacher in a short meeting. A peer might ask Tate, “Do you have pets?” Tate would answer, “Yes”. The adult would maybe have to whisper to Tate and tell him what to say next. So Tate might be coached to say, “I have a dog and two cats.” The peer would respond appropriately and maybe ask the names of the pets. The adult coach would push Tate to answer questions and then reciprocate to the child who had done the asking. So Tate would be told to ask, “Do YOU have any pets?” It was amazing to see the difference in the typically developing children and Tate. The peers just knew how to respond and keep a conversation going, whereas Tate had to be told. The peers knew they should reciprocate with another question and keep the “ball bouncing” while Tate did not. Heavy prompts had to be used for Tate back then. After trying these very scripted types of things and Tate not making a whole lot of progress, it was determined that the lunchroom setting was pretty overwhelming for Tate. So, instead of the noisy lunchroom, they moved to a classroom or the library where it was quiet and Tate would be more comfortable. Tate never eats a school lunch and has taken the same lunch from home for seven long years (peanut butter sandwich-no jelly, chips and a couple of cookies.) The kids that wanted to participate in the lunch buddy program after that first year would bring a sack lunch and commit to being a lunch buddy for a week at a time. Usually there were two or three kids who would eat with Tate for a week. The kids’ questions and conversation starters were scripted with note cards beside them or even written on a placemat. The kids got so good at doing this that a lot of times the “cheat sheets” were not used. The students became therapist themselves and the teacher would often sit back amazed at how well the kids were doing. Conversation skills are not the only thing that is worked on during lunch. Posture and body language is also constantly targeted. Keeping Tate from stimming with his hands and fingers and just looking odd in general has been a huge part of the lunch buddy program.

These two boys are always good to Tate.
Because recess came right after lunch the program was carried over into the noon recess. The lunch buddies were asked to try to engage Tate in play at recess too. Tate often declined or tried to decline but his adult coach was right there encouraging him to participate in the peer activities.

For sixth grade Tate and his class moved to the junior high. The lunch buddy program continued. Tate and his lunch buddy group sat in the lunchroom that year, but at a table off to the side. It was still noisy and a bit overwhelming but doable. An adult was present every day but if the kids could keep the conversation going and Tate interacting the teacher was able to sit back and watch.

This year Tate is in seventh grade. Tate is sitting at the long tables with his peers three days a week with a teacher observing from a distance. If he becomes distressed or looks overwhelmed they go in and “rescue” the situation but the kids are always friendly and willing to help Tate too if they can. Two days a week the lunch buddies are back at the small table off to the side with a peer or two and a teacher. They are working on reciprocity and the coach is prompting Tate when necessary to ask APPROPRIATE questions and not just repeat the same question that was asked of him. (Read my blog post on reciprocity.) One day each week a Resource Room teacher is the adult at the table and one day a week the speech pathologist is the adult at the table.

Tate with two fantastic teachers, 6th grade
There are a lot of variables involved in a successful lunch buddy program. I have mentioned the education of the students so they understand the child’s disability as one of these variables. Another is very obvious. You must have students willing to participate. We were lucky. The kids LIKED being Tate’s teachers. It made them feel important. The staff involved often praised these kids and let them know what a difference they were making. When Tate was in grade school I occasionally took donuts to the kids who were participating in the program. Without the kids motivated to help there would have been no success. Another must, also an obvious one, is a staff that is excited about the program. If the staff had not jumped on board and made the lunch buddy program FUN and interesting then the peer models would NOT have been motivated to participate. Tate has been blessed with several rock-star teachers who love their jobs. Lastly, I had to be vested in the idea. I pushed and pushed and pushed some more for social skills teaching in every IEP meeting we had and followed up to make sure things were happening. Let me insert here. I have had good relationships with almost all of Tate’s teachers and Para-Professionals. Had we been using our energy to argue instead of using it to help Tate then the lunch buddy program would have probably failed.

One more disclaimer here: Tate still has autism. Tate’s social skills are still very poor compared to his peers. He still is not really keeping up his half of a friendship with these kids at all.  Tate has peers that are so good to him and so friendly but he does not have nearly as much interest in them as he should. He is sometimes even rude to them because of his poor social skills. We have seen VAST improvement though because of the lunch buddy program. I remember reading when Tate was newly diagnosed that it would take hundreds of repetitive trials to teach him the things that other children were just absorbing from their environment. Tate has had over nine hundred of these lunches with his peer models and adult coaches at this point. I am confident I can say that I would be living with a “different” Tate had he not had this program in place.

You might also like to read: A Friend is a Guy Who Likes You

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Monday, November 10, 2014

Thank You Baldwin Bulldogs, class of 2020

The Mighty is an online group of writers who are trying to make the world a better place. You can find them online at or you can find them on Facebook. They have published a couple of my blog posts before and the editor asked me to consider participating in their November Thank you challenge. The challenge is to choose someone to write about that I do not say “Thank you” to often enough. This is almost an overwhelming task. How could I possibly choose just one person, or even one group of people, who I am thankful for? I could probably write Thank You notes for a year and not remember everyone that I need to thank. But, this is supposed to be one thank you and it did not take me long at all to decide what I wanted to write about.

My son Tate has autism. He is 13 and in the seventh grade. Tate performs at a grade level far below his peers, academically and socially. I could and should write thank you notes often, to each and every one of the teachers and staff involved in Tate’s individualized education. I definitely do not say it enough. Today however, I am going to say “Thank you” to the seventh grade class at Baldwin City Junior High School.

There are advantages to living in a small town sometimes. Tate will graduate with a class of approximately one hundred students. Tate began kindergarten with about twenty of them. He had the same kids in his class through third grade. Living in a small town, and Tate being the sixth of seven children, produced opportunities for us that many families of a special needs child would not have. I knew all the teachers and many of the parents and students. I was often in the classroom and able to educate Tate’s classmates about autism and Tate’s differences. I wanted “full disclosure” and often asked that the privacy policy be ignored. I talked openly about Tate’s disability and urged teachers to do the same. 

Tate in kindergarten
From the very beginning Tate's peers have treated him with respect and kindness. His classmates could see he needed help with many things and there were always lots of willing helpers available. At the end of their first grade year I thanked the children for being such good friends to Tate and asked them to promise they would help look out for Tate all the way through High School. They agreed, and they have kept their promise thus far.

For five years Tate has had a lunch buddy program so that he can receive social instruction from an adult coach while surrounded by peers. In elementary school, students had a chance to sign-up to be a part of it with their parents’ permission. There was always a waiting list and never a lack of enthusiasm for eating lunch with Tate. The program has evolved somewhat. Now, part of the week Tate sits at a table with peers and no adult. Other days he invites a friend or two to eat with him and a teacher at a smaller table so he can work on social skills. Rarely does a student ask for a “rain check.” If Tate calls, they answer the calling!

A fifth grade track meet
So many children with special needs have to worry about bullies. So many children with special needs are lonely or forgotten. Tate has never been bullied, not even once, that I am aware of; and many of his peers call him “friend” although Tate does not often reciprocate their kindnesses. Tate’s understanding of social skills and reciprocity is greatly lacking. His peers know it and they accept it. They give, asking nothing in return. They include Tate whenever possible. They gently give him social skills instruction when it is needed. They help him with tasks that are difficult for him. They teach him and encourage him. They make him feel like one of “the guys.” It does not matter that he comes in last in all the races. I’ve heard them cheer as if he’s crossed the finish line in record time! It doesn’t matter that he is still reading picture books while they read novels. It does not matter if his presentation is short and very simple compared to theirs. They are excited to see Tate’s achievements even when they are very small.

Buddies: Jordan, Tate, and Ethan
Tate's classmates treat him as a valued member of their class, an equal. For this, I thank them. I thank these students for being kind to Tate and for making his life easier. I thank these students for making my life easier. I do not have to worry or wonder about Tate while he is at school because he has friends who look out for him. Thank You Baldwin Bulldogs, class of 2020.

Note: The letter I wrote for The Mighty caught the attention of People Magazine and that led to an interview and a great article published by Jeff Truesdell. You can read that here: A Lesson In Kindness

Teachers, Share this with your classes. Challenge them to make a difference in the lives of their classmates with special needs. Want to read more? Teaching Tate Social Reciprocity

Find me on Facebook at Quirks and Chaos. Like what you read? Want to become a follower? Click on the Google Friend Following gadget on this blog. It's over on the right side and asks you to subscribe. Or you can add the URL (the web address in your search bar) to your Reading List. You can do that by clicking the plus sign in front of the URL. Thanks! 

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

What I Learned From Sydney's Mistake

She got in the van as she does every day after school but this day was different. She didn’t start talking a mile a minute, asking me where I had been and what I had done. She did not loudly share with me who she played with at recess or how awful the boys in her classroom behave. She did not ask me what I was making for supper or complain about the school lunch. She did not drop her backpack into the floor and flop down into her booster seat in the back. She did not wrestle with the seatbelt and complain about how hard it was to get fastened. She did not ask me if I had brought her a snack and whine about how hungry she was. She instead eased her backpack off her back, sat it down gently, and came to the center of the van to stand beside my right shoulder. She would not look at my face. She began to talk softly in partial thoughts and broken sentences. I could tell she had something to tell me that was overwhelming, something that was so dreadful she could not bring herself to use the words. I turned around to face her and said, “I cannot understand what is wrong until you tell me. So far, I know that someone is going to email me but that’s all I’ve got. It would be better if you can tell me yourself before I get the email.” She began to cry, huge tears that ran right down her cheeks and dropped to the floor. I pulled her close and told her that it would be okay. Whatever she had done could be fixed. She choked out the name of a student in her class and that they had argued. Sydney had kicked her friend, hard. I looked down at her feet. She had on cowboy boots. I asked all the questions you would expect. “Is she okay? Did you apologize? Did you have to see the principal? What is your punishment?” All Sydney could manage was, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’ll never do it again. I am sorry.” I turned off the car. We would be late to pick up her brother but sometimes the world has to stop spinning for a minute so a little girl’s hurt can be cared for. As Sydney calmed and we were able to talk, I realized she saw this as a two-fold problem. She was genuinely grieved that she had been naughty, but also she knew she would not be able to relax until it was resolved. I have seen kids cry many times in the last 26 years of parenting. I know the difference between the tears of a child who is truly remorseful and a child who is only sorry they got caught in mischief.

Sydney and I walked back into the school building, her squeezing my right arm as tightly as she could. The hallway seemed so much longer than it usually does as we walked to her classroom, her sniffing and wiping at her face the whole way. We found Sydney’s teacher in the classroom. She is a compassionate, kind, reasonable woman and very easy to talk with. We three were able to put our heads together and decided that it would be appropriate for Sydney to write an apology letter to her classmate. As we left I could see the relief on my little girl’s face. Everything was going to be Okay. When we got home she sat and wrote that letter in her best handwriting and asked for me to check it. She did not argue, or leave it laying on the counter for me to put in her backpack. 

Sydney came to me often throughout the evening to tell me how sorry she was for kicking her friend. Each time I told her that everyone makes mistakes and she had done the right thing by apologizing. At one point Sydney told her older sister what she had done and sobbed again.

You may be wondering why I find this event in the life of my child so
significant. Why is this noteworthy at all? Don’t children sometimes fight? Don’t children sometimes make poor choices? Don’t children sometimes become emotional? Children do all of these things; typically developing children as well as children with disabilities. The thing is.... Sydney is SUPPOSED TO BE kicking her classmates DAILY, but she does not. Sydney is NOT SUPPOSED TO BE ABLE to show regret or remorse. but she can. 

Some of the books I’ve read say children with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) sit in the principal’s office more than they sit in the classroom. Some of the parents in support groups say their kids with FAS kick, hit, spit, bite, scream, throw things, and hurt others daily without regret. Some of the parents who blog about their children with FAS tell of dangerous, violent behaviors. As hard as Sydney is to deal with each morning before her ADHD medications kick in, and as difficult as she is to teach, she is seldom malicious. She is bossy and a little moody, as are most fourth grade girls. She is silly and giggly and wiggly and loud often, but she is sweet and loving. How did I get so lucky? How did I get the kid whose brain was damaged by alcohol who can still be gentle and kind the majority of the time? How did I get the kid whose brain was damaged by alcohol who can still feel remorse when she hurts someone? I am blessed.

The incident qualified something for me yesterday. I often find myself advocating and arguing that Sydney should not be held to the same standard as her peers. As unfair as it is to hold Sydney accountable for many of her actions due to her brain damage and limited impulse control, it is also unfair to give up on her ability to develop some of the characteristics that others tell me she is not supposed to have. I see some great potential and it is growing. I must maintain my caution so that I do not ask Sydney to do the impossible, all the while challenging her to be all that she can be.

It would seem I am almost proud when I’m telling the story of my child kicking another child.  As sorry as I am that my child caused another child’s pain, I am proud of my little girl for many other reasons. I am delighted she has only lost the very limited amount of self-control she was allotted, and kicked a peer, one time. I am elated that she was tenderhearted enough to care that she had done it. I am pleased she took responsibility and was brave enough to face whatever consequences lay ahead. I am proud she willingly wrote an apology. I am grateful that she loves me and trusted I would help her with her problem. I am overjoyed that she is mine.

If you liked this post and would like to read more, check this out: Mommies Don't Give Their Kids Away  or this: Teaching Sydney

Find me on Facebook at Quirks and Chaos. Like what you read? Want to become a follower? Click on the Google Friend Following gadget on this blog. It's over on the right side and asks you to subscribe. Or you can add the URL (the web address in your search bar) to your Reading List. You can do that by clicking the plus sign in front of the URL. Thanks!