* Warning signs

Without doubt, early intervention is key to identifying dyslexia and providing the specialized instruction that creates new neural pathways. This spelling test is the work of a second grader who is struggling mightily. She has had ‘guided reading’ out the wazoo but nothing to address her phonological and phonetic weaknesses. She would certainly qualify as twice exceptional, with abundant signs of above average intelligence and desperate signs of being in distress.

Certainly, there is much more evidence of her disability than this test, but an analysis of her errors is quite telling. Sadly, by the time she may receive support, her self-confidence and behavior will likely be in the tank.

I have had limited success convincing parents who are in strongly emotional denial that their child has a disability. In my 49 years of teaching, I’ve noticed that even if they support appropriate interventions, it is hard for them to accept a special education label. And without that label, such students are not usually going to receive the help they need. Public schools receive funds for special ed teachers because those students qualify under state and federal guidelines.

What to do?

  • Wait. Many parents have accepted this ‘loss’ after a few more years of agonizing over it. Educational struggles truly are a matter of grieving for most families, especially for children on the autism spectrum. Sometimes parents admit to having similar struggles at school or refer to relatives with a similar profile.
  • Work to reduce stigmatization. The more we routinely show students and parents that everyone has learning differences, the less likely they are to freak out.
  • Provide info about and cool examples of brain-friendly teaching in back-to-school events and teacher conferences. Learning challenges are no fun but they are not the end of the world.
  • Don’t gloss over significant signs of struggle just because there is push- back from classroom teachers or parents. Collect data and do your best to provide the right kind of support, even if the label is incorrect (or, more ‘politically correct’).

* Christopher and me: changes

For those of you who haven’t followed my blog, I’ve spent a lot of time working with Christopher, my nephew on the autism spectrum (aka A Sweet Dude). When Christopher lived here a couple of years ago, he had to put something in his mouth, preferably his finger. At that time, we replaced it with a neckband and chewie.

chew.JPG

On his recent summer stay, I noticed his new replacement behavior. As Christopher has matured, and most likely in response to strong criticism, he has replaced chewing with hand movements, typically flexing his hand open and shut. He doesn’t try to hide those movements and seems unaware of them. I’ve seen a major increase in flexing when he’s anxious. However, this action could be hidden by a desk or table, which may reduce scrutiny by others.

Christopher’s cool dude look! Missing this sweetie so much!

* They’re back!

The kiddos are here! Another fun-filled summer ahead of us, with as many electronics and wild times as possible!

It’s not all fun and games, though. One of the challenges we face is that Christopher (who is on the autism spectrum) is now using the term “autistic” as both a derogatory and teasing label for his sibs and friends. Last year it was “retard,” along with the ubiquitous “smokin’ hot.” Obviously, he has been taught that “autistic” is not a good thing and/or draws attention. (For him, all attention, whether positive or negative, is pretty much OK.)

Another change: Christopher no longer makes me chase him down for a hug while disguised as a “hug-hating” ninja or ghost! He chases me down for a side arm hug, his eyes glistening with mischief. What a sweetheart!

* Christopher and me: cheating?

You have to love Christopher’s desire for integrity.  I have been tutoring this nephew of mine, a middle schooler on the autism spectrum, for a few years now.  He currently lives in Texas so our work is accomplished through Hangouts.

Christopher gaming

Christopher steered his way through a favorite game this past summer.

 

In a recent session, I was helping Christopher with his language arts homework.  He had a list of 12 words to write in sentences.  Each word was 4-5 syllables long (such as ‘inconceivably’) and he hadn’t the slightest clue what any of them meant.  The directions suggested that he’d encountered these in a reading assignment, but I know that Christopher is not going to learn or even hear any new words that way.  To him, school is largely white noise.  He is constantly scanning for clues and rules because “I’m not a slacker,” but the big picture?  Not so much.

After I wrote the first sentence in the shortest and most concise way to illustrate the word’s meaning, he looked at me and asked, “Is this cheating?”  I wanted to weep but I said, with confidence, that this was not cheating because he should never be expected to write these words in sentences until he knows what the words mean.  I said it was impossible for him and for me to complete this assignment if we didn’t know the words yet.

My heart breaks when I see this kind of one-size-fits-all teaching.  Poor Christopher, definitely not a slacker.  Definitely losing out on daily opportunities to learn because no one is taking the time to provide needed support.  If you come across the Christophers in your school or class, please remember their desire to learn and PLEASE get some help if you don’t know how to modify their environment.  Check out the Friday Institute’s  free Learning Differences course!

* Another farewell

Yesterday was our last full day with the kiddos for the summer.  Again.  It was a fun day, with lots of laser tag, enjoying the Beatles’ Help movie, endless SpongeBob episodes, and many ventures with Roblox and Minecraft.  Poor Christopher had the toughest time with goodbyes, but we were all very sad.  Their friends who joined us and became part of the gang also mourned the end of movie nights.  We hope they will all be able to return next year!

SpongeBob

The folks at Walmart always breathe a sigh of relief when we leave!

* Read to Teddy

Color Your World: Piggy Pink

Having students read to piggies or teddies or Pikachu can be a valuable way to provide an audience for hesitant readers.  Make sure they whisper read, so just their own critter can hear (and the room is not full of booming voices).  Many struggling readers find this a powerful way to read books at their level without a sense of shame (“I should be reading chapter books!”).  It also starts a habit which they can use at home, if no adults or sibs are available or willing.  Hearing themselves read out loud is a confidence booster, perhaps jump-starting opportunities to read to younger kids.  For some of my groups, I had their books placed inside folders so only their special listener knew what book was being read.  This helped ease them through those early days of reading well below grade level.  Some kids need that boost, others don’t.

I noticed that for many of my kids on the autism spectrum, this activity provided a chilling out experience.  They usually read silently, clutching a dinosaur or Pokemon character.  After the stress of the larger classroom, these kids needed comfort in a socially acceptable form.  Before bean bags were banned due to fire regulations, they could also get a lot of form-fitting sensory input while reading to Kirby.

Personally, I read to Teddy.  Piggy pink.

IMG_1386 (1).JPG

 

* Christopher and me: long distance

My nephew, Christopher, now lives in Texas.  (If you are new to this blog, I tutored Christopher for the past 2 years.  He’s a moderate functioning kiddo on the autism spectrum.)  His new teacher seems really nice but has limited control over the classroom.  For kids on the spectrum, weak classroom management can be devastating.  In Christopher’s case, he relies heavily upon a well-structured class with clear boundaries.  Despite acting up significantly at home, Christopher is adamant that he will not tantrum at school.  My fear is that he will start to copy his classmates.  They may easily recover with a structured classroom, but my nephew can get stuck in a cycle of misbehavior.  At first, he thought it was slightly amusing that the teacher had numerous “talks” with kiddos, mostly because it wasn’t him.  Now he is struggling with the stress of misbehaving kids and probably the temptation to act up himself.

My contact with Christopher has been sporadic since school started.  We use Google hangouts but the time difference is challenging.  Most likely he needs a different classroom, but I’m trying to address the issues for him the best I can.  I’ve decided to write a series about “Bryan,” a composite identity with plenty of similarities to my nephew.  It’s in a Google doc so he can listen to it being read to him.  (I noted in an earlier post that Christopher’s comprehension is improved when he can both listen and see the words.)  I think the content will grab his attention and I have added some questions to which I can refer when we tutor online.

Brayn's story 1

Eventually I will use social stories to support Christopher, but given the stress of his move, I prefer to approach this laterally for now.  In my email with the story attached, I will tell Christopher that I know about a kiddo who dealt with ta similar problematic classroom.  (That is true, sadly.)  The “Bryan” stories will allow my nephew to evaluate the problem from a safe distance but close enough to make personal connections.  Christopher is sensitive to correction but wants to follow school rules, so I am hopeful this approach will help.

If you’d like to access the entire story, here’s a link.

* Saying goodbye

Our adventures, tutoring, and movie nights with the kiddos have come to an end.  After a couple of years here in North Carolina, my nephews and niece have returned to Texas.  It was tough to say goodbye.  They arrived quite traumatized, but were nurtured by a most precious couple who sacrificed greatly in restoring these dear ones.  It was a joint effort to socialize them, to love them through their sometimes unlovable moments.  That is when we all most need to be loved, right?  When we are at our most unlovable?

We had many many delightful movie nights, digital events where they played hard and mostly cooperatively.

movie night

There were some days that I failed miserably, when my patience evaporated, but overall, we learned and loved together.

Speaking of learning (so get ready for the teacher in me), there was absolutely no learning curve for this Action Movie FX app (below).  Created by Bad Robot Interactive, it features every kind of Star Wars menace (and more) that you can imagine.  Fortunately, this is not our car!  Once I contained them inside, they became quite adept at blowing up every person and every piece of furniture as well.

Our goodbyes today at the airport were difficult.  Plus I thought I might get stopped by security with that guitar case, which seemed like a perfect cover for an automatic weapon.  Yes, I’ve seen too many movies.

airport

As the departure time neared, Christopher hid his tearful face while Isaac gave me hugs every few minutes.  We waved faithfully every time they looked back at us on the other side of the security check.  Christopher yelled a reminder that I will tutor him via Google Hangouts.  Or else.

One consolation for us all is that they will spend summers here in NC.  I imagine my patience will be tested again, but I smile at the thought of greeting them next June.  I love you, dearest kiddos.

 

* Christopher and me: defining success

Christopher failed the reading portion of the End of Grade (EOG) tests.

Christopher 1

I tutor my precious nephew, Christopher, a 4th grader on the AU spectrum.  He’s made terrific progress in the past year, with gains in vocabulary and reading comprehension.  But was it enough?  During a benchmark trial for the EOGs at school, Christopher melted down with tears and distress.  After 3 hours of testing, he had answered 7 out of 45 questions.

In our follow-up tutoring sessions, Christopher spoke angrily about the injustice of test questions that were meant to “trick” him.  He stated accurately that he could not read the test passages.  What to do?  If the EOGs were an accurate measure of his growth, I would have been very concerned.  In reality, Christopher’s gains are best measured against specific objectives on an IEP, not against grade level norms.  His reading performance remains well below that of his peers, but remarkably above where he was a year ago.  And we have long abandoned efforts for him to read orally; he cannot maintain focus, he benefits from seeing what he hears, and natural phrasing helps him use context for unfamiliar words.

Knowing that he would likely produce a test misadministration for himself and the other kids in his small testing group, I suggested- gulp- that he not attempt to read the passages but instead read the questions and scan for answers.  Using this strategy on grade level passages in our sessions, he scored about 50% accuracy.  That would have to do.  The alternatives were unacceptable.

Christopher called me every night in the week-long EOG countdown.  His determination to succeed in this rather hopeless endeavor was both encouraging and heartrending.  “What does ‘most likely’ mean, Aunt Katharine?”  “What are key words?”  I reaffirmed my conviction that he would do his best and that I was proud of him.  Christopher survived.  He did not lose the gains we had made, he does not know he “failed,” and he will continue to grow.  Going forward, audio books with a visual component will be the key for Christopher’s ongoing instruction in all academic areas.

I understand the need for standardized testing, but I value the effort Christopher has made, his desire to keep learning, and the confidence he has gained this year from measurable growth in his skills.  The 4th grade EOG does not define Christopher’s future.

* The London Eye Mystery

The London Eye Mystery

What intrigue, fun, and amazing depth in The London Eye Mystery by Siobhan Dowd!  What’s this gripping mystery about?  Aunt Gloria and her son, Salim, come to London to say goodbye to Ted and Kat’s family before heading for a new life in New York.  The sisters and kids decide to take in a final day of sightseeing.  Salim ends up on the Eye by himself but he never gets off!  What happened to Salim?

Told in first person point-of-view by Ted, a 12 year old on the autism spectrum, this book is a gem for many reasons.  As a read-aloud or for kids in upper elementary and older, this book is loaded with enough material to satisfy readers and teachers alike.  All the characters in the book are well-developed.  Themes abound.  The clues are intriguing, the mystery is a real page turner, and the shattering reality of a missing kid is not glossed over.

The portrayal of the thoughts and actions of a kiddo on the autism spectrum is a primary accomplishment of this book.  Seriously, that is no mean feat.  Ted talks to us about his brain with its different operating system, relates his never-ending and complex thoughts on weather systems, and lets us know when he’s stressed, including habitual hand shaking and occasional banging and kicking walls.  Poor Ted.  I’d bang walls in his position, too.  If ONLY his family would listen to Ted!

Ted’s sister, Kat, is a tweener in rebellion against her mum, secretly smoking and often lying, and cursing several times in the book.  While reading this aloud, I left out most of those words.  On the other hand, I appreciate the author’s authentic description of Kat’s struggle to find her way while grappling with agonizing guilt over Salim’s disappearance.

As a special ed teacher, I’d use this book to develop empathy among neurotypical learners for those whose brain are on IOS-Autism.  Kids on the spectrum are at risk for bullying and this book would be a terrific tool for countering those prejudices.  The London Eye Mystery could also validate kids who have been made aware of their diagnosis of ASD.

I was grieved to discover that Siobhan Dowd passed away in 2007 at the age of 47.  She had devoted much of her life’s energy to “tak[ing] stories to children and young people without stories.”  In the days before her death, she established The Siobhan Dowd Trust, a worthwhile project to supply books to those who otherwise couldn’t access them.  Siobhan Dowd definitely achieved her goal of giving a voice to kiddos like Ted.  I encourage you to read the book and check out her foundation, where all royalties and funds from overseas sales provide hope for the voiceless.