It took a team to transform Edward’s life. Teamwork is usually the most crucial strategy for working with difficult kids. As I noted in my previous post, I have not always “played well with others.” In Edward’s case, our combined efforts had an amazing outcome.
I first observed Edward when he was in a preschool setting. He had a diagnosis of autism. I saw him running on the playground, flapping his hands, seemingly unaware of his classmates, and desperate to get on the swing. I noticed that he continued circling around until the swing was available, then made a beeline for it and spent the duration of outdoor play enjoying the swing. Edward’s mom was trying to decide between a self-contained classroom and mainstreaming into a regular kindergarten. Edward was considered a fairly compliant kid, although he did have occasional tantrums, and his pre-academic skills were strong. I recommended mainstreaming and she agreed to give it a try.
Edward fit into kindergarten fairly well. He did not seem to process verbal directions but followed the movement and flow of his classmates. If everyone was on the carpet, he would be there too, on the edges. He was able to speak but didn’t say anything without prompting. Edward received services from a speech therapist, an occupational therapist, worked with me on social skills, and had a special education assistant assigned to his room. And his classroom teacher was a jewel. When I suggested visual cues, she had the charts out. When I asked for preferential seating, he had his own spot at the front of the group. Edward’s mom and I communicated through a daily notebook so she could follow up on school routines and vocabulary. His mom always included a personal note in Edward’s lunchbox, which gave us the idea of using an index card to prompt communication with a peer at lunch.
Our biggest problem at this point was getting Edward to make eye contact with anyone. We practiced with puppets and although he enjoyed it immensely, there was no carryover to real life. His mother suggested that Edward learned best by watching TV, so I made some videotapes for him to watch at home. His favorite puppet instructed Edward in eye contact and it worked! After additional practice in social skills with kids and puppets, along with support from the assistant, Edward entered the world of social communication. He was rigidly rule-oriented so the speech therapist and I taught him rules for conversations. He learned to initiate eye contact, ask a question, and answer a question. Wow!
Before he entered kindergarten, first, and second grade, I spoke to each class about Edward’s special strengths, including his phenomenal memory for areas of interest. Then I asked the kids to help support him in making friends, something he really wanted but found challenging. The kids were always delighted to play a role in Edward’s success at school. He had no shortage of invitations to birthday parties, as well. I have used this strategy for a number of special needs students, in coordination with their parents. The special needs kid is always conveniently out of the room during this interaction, by the way.
Edward made steady progress in most areas of school. I wrote many social stories for him, including how to deal with his strong preferences for colors when they weren’t available or how to cope with not winning a game (he became quite competitive as he matured). The biggest obstacle we faced was Edward’s inability to listen to the teacher during any large group activity. He could listen in a small group or 1-on-1, but seemed almost deaf in a large group. I tried social stories, role-playing, and videotaping. No change. By the end of first grade, I had borrowed a set of headphones from a hearing specialist and equipped the teacher with a microphone. These rather old-fashioned tech tools enabled Edward to hear the teacher’s voice above the other sounds in the room. Unfortunately, it didn’t seem to make a difference. (And the teacher had the embarrassing experience of being “on” when she used the bathroom!) Edward still had no idea what the teacher was saying. I sat next to him, across from him, flashed cue cards telling him to listen- nothing helped. His inability to process “teacher talk” was becoming a burden for his team, especially his mom. He had to be retaught every topic and skill that was introduced in a whole class setting.
When Edward started second grade, he was still not able to process information in a large group. I was concerned that he would look odd wearing headphones, so I borrowed ear buds instead. Perhaps it was developmental growth or maybe the ear buds, but something finally clicked for Edward. After a month or so, he could LISTEN! Woohoo!
Edward continued to flourish in the regular classroom setting, eventually with no special ed assistant. His mom was an amazing advocate for his needs in middle and high school. Edward has just graduated from college.