Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Tate's a Winner, at Pictionary and More

Tate recently decided he'd heard enough
from his sister and silenced her. 
A couple of weeks ago we were invited to the home of friends for dinner. They have a pond behind their home and we all planned to do some fishing after dinner. Some of us were looking very forward to the fishing. One of us was not. Tate does not like to fish. He was not excited to be going on this outing at all, but that is not unusual. As luck would have it though a storm rolled in just after we arrived and we were stuck inside for the evening, fishing out of the question. This was quite okay with Tate. He goes everywhere prepared, with his tablet and his iPod. So Tate settled into a corner on a cushioned chair for the evening, pulled up a YouTube video and put in his headphones, shutting us all out. There were seven adults, two small children, and five teens present. The little ones ran off to play and the rest of us decided to play a game. We settled on Pictionary on the Nintendo Wii. We split up into three teams and someone asked Tate if he wanted to play. I was sure he would say, “No.” I’d have bet on it. He said, “Yes.” I was shocked and a bit apprehensive. I thought the team that got Tate would have a definite handicap and they would have to be awfully patient. After all, without much “theory of mind” he would not be a lot of help guessing at what others were drawing. Drawing has never been a strength for TateTa either…. But, no one was worried about winning or losing. We were all just a bunch of friends having fun.

Can you guess what Tate drew here?
The answer is in a note at the bottom of the post.
See if you guessed correctly. 
Each time it was Tate’s turn to draw we asked him to pick from the “Junior” words while the rest of us played using the “Adult” words. One person from a different team always looked at the word Tate was to illustrate to make sure he knew what it was and then that person would excuse himself from guessing. As it turned out Tate needed very little help. Once he forgot he was not supposed to read the word out loud and had to choose again. A couple of times he gave verbal clues. I kept reminding him that no words were allowed but he got a little confused when everyone was yelling out answers and asking him, “Is it a ____?” So, wanting to please them, he would forget he was not supposed to talk and answer them in words. I thought the funniest part of the evening was when Tate was to illustrate the word, “coal.” In addition to drawing a blob that no one could identify, he said, “It’s what Santa Claus gives to kids who have been naughty.” Of course that was in violation of the rules but we all cracked up. No one really cared the rules had been violated. They understood. They understood that Tate was a kid who not too many years ago could not define words. He would have been unable to give a clue verbally at all. He could not have defined the word “coal” or much of any other word. And that night he was doing that and so much more.

When Tate was small we invested every dollar we could scrape together into therapies to teach him. We put all our eggs into one basket. We used ABA therapy and did as many hours of discrete trial as we could fit into a day. If you do not know what ABA or discrete trial is, click here.

At age three Tate did not understand that an item could actually have more than one name. For example, He called cows, “cows.” When we tried to teach him that cows are also called “animals” he had a lot of trouble reconciling that in his mind. When we finally convinced him a cow is an animal, he would no longer call it a cow. We worked on a discrete trial program for a long time called “categories.” Another program was to teach synonyms as he was having so much trouble with the idea. I tried to convince him that sticks and twigs were the same. Bugs and Insects were also the same. It was so hard for him to accept. When Tate had mastered those simple programs we moved onto much harder things. Word definition had never gone very well. It required a lot more language than Tate had mastered for a long time. Hearing Tate describe “coal” I was reminded of all the hard work and how well it has paid off.

Another highlight of the evening for me was watching Tate interact with those around him. He watched the rest of us laughing and bragging about our successes during the evening. He heard us all teasing each other, claiming the other teams must be cheating when they pulled ahead. He wanted in on the fun. Tate began to “trash talk” and was very good at it. He looked to a friend next to him who was playing on another team and said, “I wonder what it will feel like when I win?” We laughed twice as hard at that comment since it had come from Tate. As it turned out, Tate did not have to wonder long. His team did win. He’s a winner in more ways than one.

Note: In the picture above, Tate was drawing a king. We all knew as soon as we saw the crown. I was very impressed. Tate's sister snapped a photo of the television screen as she was also quite impressed at how well he was doing. 

If you enjoyed this post you might like to read another. Executive Function and Al Capone

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

There is no ham in hamburgers

I have been a mom for 27 years. I was 25 years old when I became a mom for the first time. As almost every mom will tell you there is no describing the overwhelming love a mother feels for her child. You really cannot know that feeling until you become a parent. As a young mom of a typically developing child, and then two, and then three, and then four.... I got to do a lot of amazing things with my kids. I enjoyed my time with them very much. When my sixth child was born I was not quite so young anymore. I had children at home, aged 13, 11, 8, 6, and 3. I'd had enough experience to know what I was doing. I had taught a lot of kids to walk, talk, use a spoon, brush their teeth, dress themselves and all the other things moms teach their kids to do. I really knew what I was doing. Except this time I did not. This time my baby did not learn the things I tried to teach him. This time was different. And around age two and a half the things he had been able to learn he seemed to forget. And that's when I knew. That is when I knew that something was really not right. And I first heard the word "autism." Autism has robbed my son Tate of a lot of things but autism has not robbed us of everything. Autism has never been able to limit our love. Autism has not taken our sense of humor. And in spite of autism, we have a really good life. Tate, not autism, is celebrated every day. Tate makes my heart smile. He does that in a lot of ways. Sometimes even the obsessions, struggles and misunderstandings are an endearing part of our lives. Tate is different than his siblings but different is not always bad or wrong. Different is just different. 

I have tried to illustrate some of the ways Tate thinks differently. 

Tate, being a very literal thinker is often struggling to understand figurative language. Words with more than one meaning are also often misunderstood. Here are just a few of the things I've had to try and reconcile for Tate recently. 

If Tate believes someone is upset with him he becomes anxious. It is not often I lose my patience with Tate. I know it will take him longer to get past a conflict than it will me and usually if I have to correct him I do it with a smile on my face so he understands he is not "in trouble." Sometimes though I slip. The following illustrates the results if I lose my cool.


Nine months of each year for the past three, Tate insists on wearing a hoodie. He has several, his favorite have a Kansas University Jayhawk on them. He becomes upset if he is asked to take the hoodies off but sometimes I must insist. His hoodies are as important to Tate as a blanket or pacifier can become to a baby. A hoodie seem to be his comfort item. 

Tate, like many people his age would rather not help with chores. Sometimes he can be coaxed into helping out but most of the time he is ready with an excuse. The exception is laundry. A few months ago he discovered he likes to do laundry and he takes his job very seriously. 

Tate's little sister drives him crazy but he is also very protective of her. He can yell at her himself but he sure does not want anyone else saying a cross word to her. Sydney was born in Russia and we adopted her before her first birthday. Tate tells me often that her Russian heritage should exempt her from behaving. It makes perfect sense to him.

If you liked this post, you might also like Tate's Texts.

Friday, September 4, 2015

I dash dreams now to avoid heartache later.

Most of the time I don’t think about the things Sydney cannot do. Most of the time I am just thankful for the things she can do. As a matter of fact, I do not think Sydney regularly thinks about the things she cannot do either, but is also content about the things she is good at. But sometimes….. Sometimes it becomes quite evident that she is unable to do things her peers easily master and she sees it. She sees it and it hurts her. When it happens there is often nothing I can do or say to make it less painful.  

There was a time when Sydney was in preschool, struggling to learn colors and simple skills her peers had long since mastered. Back then I wondered if she would ever read or be able to do simple math. She has come so very far. I try to be grateful for what she is achieving and not disappointed about what she is not. It’s a fine line I walk though because I do not want to stop challenging Sydney and become complacent. I have to remember she would NOT have learned to read or do simple math had I stopped trying to teach her. And so I try to challenge her without making the goals loftier than she can achieve.

Last year Sydney was in the fourth grade. Fourth graders in our district spend a lot of their music class learning to play the recorder. I am sure using the recorder is beneficial for lots of reasons. The students learned how to read music. They were taught about rhythm and how to count measures. It was a lot of fun for them. The first song they tackled was Hot Cross Buns. And they went on to learn many more. And then there was a concert. They played some of the songs they knew that night. When I say “they” and “them” above I mean all the fourth graders…. EXCEPT Sydney. Sydney had finally mastered the first song Hot Cross Buns in time for the concert but that was all. She just held her recorder and pretended to play the rest of them while her classmates whistled away. And she knew. She knew she was the only one on the stage holding a recorder who could not play the songs. No matter how hard she had tried and how much she wanted it she was unable to memorize the fingerings or the order of the notes. Part of the time, even throughout the song she did know, she was not able to keep the holes completely covered well with her fingers so the recorder made shrill squeaking noises instead of the tones it should. During the time leading up to the concert Sydney would often tell me her classmates asked her why she could not yet play the easy song. They did not understand why the things that came easy to them did not come easy to Sydney. I think it is all about the thing called executive function I've mentioned before. Playing music on an instrument takes planning and reading ahead and remembering what comes next. Those things do not come easy to Sydney. How can I explain that to her classmates? How can I ask them to stop asking Sydney, "Why can't you do this? Everyone else in the class can do it." 

The whole experience with the recorder was pretty humbling for us and I was so glad it was over. But I knew it was not REALLY over. Because the recorder is used to prepare the students for band. In the fifth grade, the kids decide if they want to be in the band and what instrument they will play. This summer I touched on the subject several times. I casually mentioned to Sydney that SOME fifth graders would be in band and some would not. I told her she would be one of the ones who were not in the band. I did not make it sound like she would be missing out on anything great, just doing something different. She did not argue. Then school started. The music teacher began talking about instruments and introducing the students to them and allowing them to touch them. And the excited fifth graders all began chattering about band and instruments and Sydney came home telling me of their excitement. I reminded her she would not be taking band class. I gently reminded her how hard it was for her to learn just one song on the recorder. She remembered. But oh how she wants to try again. This time with a much harder instrument. We’ve had several conversations about it together each time her conceding seeming to understand she will be doing something “different” than band. On the way home from school today she once again got into the car chattering about how great it would be to be in the band. She announced. “I know just what trumpet I want to play in the band! It is the flute!” Of course I smiled at her gaffe but was saddened by her unrealistic expectation. Her sisters immediately jumped in with things like, “Band isn’t that fun!” and “Singing in the choir at school is more fun than band.”

Even if I pacified Sydney by allowing her to join the band and I bought her a flute or a trumpet or even a drum, it would only be a short-lived happiness. As the other kids picked up the notes and fingerings and learned what the band teacher wanted from them, she would fall behind. The other kids would notice. Sydney would notice. So, gently telling her that band is not for her may be painful now it is much easier on everyone involved than setting her up for failure. That is what I have to keep telling myself. I dash dreams now to avoid heartache later. 

Note: Sydney's disability is Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. For more about that click here: The F in FAS does not stand for Fun