Tag Archives: psychology

Learning Through Play, What a Revolutionary Concept!

Last Wednesday was the last day I took Buddy to his old school. They told me it was no longer acceptable for him to come to school with his clothes on backwards. I also know they’ve been punishing him with time outs for toileting accidents, something that EVERY book on autism I’ve read has said not to do. Once that started happening I noticed a change in Buddy. He stopped wanting to go to school. I wonder if they got on to him for coming to school with his clothes on backwards because last Weds he was very withdrawn. But since he can’t talk to me all I have is speculation.

Thursday morning he was extremely reluctant to go to school. It’s usually not an issue. Unlike a lot of kids with autism, Buddy likes getting out of the house. I asked him if he wanted to go to school and he said “no.” In the past when I’ve asked he’d repeat, “school” which for him is a way of saying yes.

I took him to a playground instead. There were several other little boys Buddy’s age there, and he surprised me by joining in their game of Power Rangers. One of the mothers there had worked as a physical therapist at his old school and recognized him and she commented on what a good job he was going with the other boys. As we left I felt he benefited far more from those hours at the park than he would have at school. And that play? He wasn’t getting at school. But it’s the type of play he needs.

Friday I took the kids to visit my grandparents. And on Saturday when my parents came to visit, they found that Buddy had come out of the shell he had been in for the past few months, ever since they started the time outs at school.

Monday we started his new school. When I picked him up, he proudly showed me the truck he was playing with. His case manager said he’d done well and he won a game of musical chairs. Today when I went to pick him up I saw his therapist engaging him in a long, back and forth verbal sequence (five turns). This is something they were able to do in two days with him that his school was not able to do in five months of being with him! In fact, his school had no idea how to engage him. They asked me once, and when I told them (find what he is interested in, play with him, and gradually bring him into your world) they dismissed me as being permissive and went back to doing what doesn’t work.

And Buddy just seems happier now. And we’re seeing more engagement from him. While driving home today with Buddy and Sissy in the back seat we got stopped by a train. Buddy pointed at it and looked at Sissy and said, “Look, Sissy! A train!” I rarely hear him talk to her expect at night when he says, “Night night, Sissy, love you.”

At home we were watching “Mary Poppins” and when Mary Poppins did her long twirl during the “Step in Time” sequence he got excited. I started wondering out loud if any of us could twirl as long as she could and gave it a try. After I tried, Buddy tried. Here’s the thing, Buddy rarely imitates what he sees on tv. But as the show went on he started dancing more and imitating the movements. Later as I was doing dishes he started singing “Old MacDonald.”

I don’t think his new school has wrought a miracle so much as I think his old one was really stressing him out. And what I want to emphasize was that he was in pre-school. Pre-school was stressing him out. And further, is was inhabiting his growth when it should have been encouraging it.

And here’s the thing, it’s not just parents of children with autism experiencing this. Kids today are more anxious and at younger ages.Sensory processing disorders are on the rise. We have become so focused with academic success that we have set our expectations for our pre-schoolers way too high. Kids in pre-k are not wired to sit down for hours. They are not wired to know how to read or to do arithmetic. Our society got this insane notion that if we teach things to children at a younger age they will be smarter. But what happens is that we are teaching our children skills they are not developmentally ready for. Some children, boys especially, can’t learn to read before they are seven! But if you expect that child to learn to read at 4, well, of course they are going to get frustrated with school. When you expect a pre-school to sit still for hours, well, he’s going to get frustrated when he can’t do it.

And here’s where it ends up. Children’s mental hospitals. I did my practicum in one. I saw kids as young as four given ADHD medication so they could sit still for long periods of time. Here’s the thing, you give a kid who had ADHD medication, and he will calm down. If you give a kid who does not have ADHD medication, he will become irritable. When this happens, rather than saying the kid does not have ADHD, what tends to happen is it is viewed as that child has depression that the ADHD was masking, so they’re given an antidepressant. And then when the child has the symptoms from the depression medication, they’re given a third medicine. Some kids get up to 18 medications so they can sit still. At the age of four.

A disclaimer, I do not feel all medication is evil. While I was working there I also saw kids with schizophrenia. They definitely needed medication to be lucid at best, or to at least control their outbursts at worse (the prognosis for childhood schizophrenia is not good). However, for things like ADHD, I feel that medication should be used as a LAST resort when behavioral options have been tried and failed. But too often it’s used first.

Something else to point out, the children’s hospital I was in did not have a playground. I did not learn about sensory processing disorders until I had graduated, but looking back, I realize that a lot of those kids likely had undiagnosed SPDs and would have benefited more from physical therapy and play as opposed to Adderral and Abilify.

Which is all a long winded way of getting to my basic point, when the expectations we place on children are too high, normal behavior become pathologized. When a four year old is expected to sit still for hours, not being able to sets that four year old on the path to being labeled ADHD. When a five year old can’t read, she is set on the path of thinking she is too stupid to learn.When we stress the importance of achieving a high score on a test above all else, we set our kids up for anxiety disorders.

In the two days Buddy has been at this new school, I have already seen good progress. He spends his days learning through play. On the note they send home they have play activity after play activity they have engaged him in. At his old school they did a lot of work sheets and art projects, both of which are not age appropriate for a pre-school. My son has made more progress with play activities than he has with five months of work sheets. And it frustrates me to no end that we have someone gotten so obsessed with academic achievement that the idea of children learning through play is revolutionary, and finding places that provide it are so exceedingly difficult.


These Little Things

It’s Buddy’s last week in public school. On Monday he starts a program specifically for children with autism. And after today, I’m thinking it’s coming not a moment too soon. And the matter is so small it should be inconsequential, but it isn’t.

I want to encourage Buddy’s independence as much as possible. He’s five. Sissy is not yet 2 and I still have to take care of a lot of things for her, such as dressing her. Buddy can dress himself. One of the things that drives me crazy about the school dress codes is that if I give him a shirt with Jack Skellington or Olaf on it, he will get in his shirt, pants and shoes in five minutes flat. But if I give him a plain polo shirt that the school requires, even in his favorite color, it’s more of a pulling teeth experience to get him to dress himself. But he’s five, he’s able to do it, so I find ways to coax him into it (usually if I set them out at breakfast he’ll put them on as part of a routine, but then there are days when he doesn’t).

I’ve always had an issue with school uniforms. Way to promote conformity and stifle individuality! But as a parent, I find them even more irksome because it is so much easier to get Buddy to dress himself when he really wants to wear what I set out.

The second part of this is that Buddy does not care if his clothes are on backwards. Well, he cares if his shirts that have characters he likes on them are on backwards. He will turn those around himself. Not the polos. He will even button them up in the back.

One thing I firmly believe as a parent is that you have to choose your battles. Running in the street? Yes, that’s a battle I will fight. Even though Buddy does not want to, I make him hold my hand when we are in a parking lot or crossing the street. That is a battle I will fight. Wearing his shirt forward? Not so much. He’s not hurting himself. He’s not hurting anyone else. The person it affects most is him. I know some people worry about teasing, but given my own experience with being bullied, bullies will use ANY excuse to bully another child. If they aren’t going to bully him for his clothes, they’ll bully him for the strange way he talks. If not that, then they might bully him because he’s biracial. Buddy is NOT responsible for the bullies’ behavior. The parent of that bully or the teacher has a responsibility to tell that kid that bullying is not okay and to knock it off. In my mind, use it as a learning opportunity for kids to promote tolerance. Some kids like their shirts forwards, others backwards, but it really doesn’t matter.

If I try to coax Buddy into turning his shirt around he gets upset. Trust me, we’re quickly on the road to a tantrum if I push the issue. To me, it’s not worth the battle. He dressed himself, which is what I wanted. Him dressing himself makes my life easier. Me fighting with him over which way his shirt is facing does not. I’d much rather spend time having positive interactions with him than arguing with him over something that is of no consequence to anyone!

The school has sent notes commenting several times that they had him turn his shirt the right way and he didn’t protest with them. This does not surprise me too much. Like a lot of kids with autism, it takes Buddy a while to be comfortable telling people what he wants. In strange places he’s less likely to protest stuff that he will at home, where he feels more secure and comfortable (and unlike a lot of kids with autism he rarely tantrums in public). So he’s more likely to protest something with me than he is his teacher in a place that is not as comfortable for him.

Today they sent a note saying he needs to come to school with his shirt facing forward. Of course, they pointed out that he doesn’t protest with them so it shouldn’t be an issue at home.

Fine. Come live my life for one day. Come see what battles you’ll fight then. Just dismiss my experiences with my son, who I live with every day. Come, tell me I’m doing it all wrong. Come, tell me I should create a power struggle over something so small and insignificant as a matter of which direction his shirt is facing. Come, tell me I should fight with him over that as opposed to spending that time doing something we enjoy together because, for whatever reason, it is so vitally important that his shirt faces the right way.

It bugs me because it is such a small matter. He’s five. No one is going to be harmed if his shirt is facing the wrong way. And this is just a beautiful example in my mind of how school policies can just make life at home that much more miserable for parents and kids who have disabilities, or even kids who do not, and are more focused on appearances than actually creating environments that are kid friendly and conducive to learning. My mom fought this battle with my sister. Though my sister is not autistic, she has sensory processing issues and as a child especially was extremely sensitive to touch. The seams on her clothes were extremely painful for her as a result, and she preferred to wear her pjs and her clothes inside out. My mom had to fight with the school for this to be allowed. But how they would expect a 6 year old to learn anything when she is in physical pain because of the seams on her clothes is beyond me. If a kid learns best wearing pajamas, why is it such a battle to get the schools to let them learn in pajamas?

And for the record, my sister now wears regular clothes and outgrew a lot of her sensitivities. And she’s now getting her Ph.D., is well adjusted, and lives independently. This is not mollycoddling and spoiling. This is about schools having rules that are not realistic for children. This is about promoting policies that make them kid friendly and creating environments that are conducive to learning. For small kids, this means being comfortable. To me, this means focusing less on what our kids are wearing and more on what they are doing.

And no, I am not going to pick a battle with Buddy over this. As of now I’m just repeating the mantra, “two more days, two more day.”

A Place for Buddy

We just got back from touring an autism treatment program for Buddy, and we’re very optimistic and excited. Ever since I became concerned about autism with Buddy I’ve had a hard time finding a place that seems to understand autism which has been a source of frustration (there’s nothing worse than being scared there’s a problem, having people tell you he’s behind but will grow out of it and not to worry), and I think we finally have.

Things I like about their program.

  1. 1:1 teacher/student ratio. At Buddy’s current school there are a lot of kids and not a lot of teachers, and a child with autism needs A LOT of engagement and really need to be shadowed constantly.
  2. 50% of the time is one on one, the rest is with the other students.
  3. There’s a playground across the street owned by the Boys & Girls Town that they have a contract to use, and Buddy can play there with them while being shadowed by a therapist who can help him learn to play with other children (this has been the hardest thing for me. Sometimes he plays very well with other children, sometimes he wants to but just can’t break the ice and it’s so hard to watch).
  4. No worksheets. Everything is natural, play based learning. We evolved to learn through play, not worksheets, and finding a place in my area that does not focus on worksheet drills and focuses on learning through play has been exceedingly difficult. Play IS the mechanism by which children learn.
  5. They have a gross motor therapy room with a ball pit. Buddy saw that and jumped right in and did not want to leave! So yeah, Buddy liked it there a lot! I explained that he is sensory seeking and they actually knew what I meant and understood the other autism lingo.
  6. They did not give me that condescending false hope that he will start talking and acting like a typically developing child in abut a month. Everything was realistic. I feel like they actually understand autism.
  7. Once a month they will either meet me or my husband in the home to check out concerns, progress, and to work on issues in the home to help Andy and I improve how we interact with him, and also to help Sissy learn how to interact with him. As a therapist I strongly believe that when one person in the family has a problem, the whole family has that problem, and the actions that each person in that family performs or fails to perform either makes the problem better or worse. So even though Sissy is not yet two, she’s affected by having a sibling with autism and also needs support. So I like that the whole family is going to be included.
  8. It’s more hours during the week than what he currently has, and it’s year round. So not more of this getting him in a schedule and it getting messed up by summer or Christmas break.

So Andy and I are very happy with what we saw and Buddy really liked playing there. We think this will be a good place for him and that he can grow and thrive there. They did not promise me a miracle, everything was realistic, and they accepted his autism behaviors as autism behaviors and not being defiant or manipulative.

Of course, until we meet our very high deductible, we’re going to be paying through the nose for this. This is one of those instance where I want to emphasize that a person’s financial resources matter. Person A with a child like Buddy who can afford the therapy will get it and see their child progress. Person B with a child like Buddy who can’t would have to settle for what the school offers, and considering all of the labeling of his behavior in pre-school, frankly that would put that kid on the path to juvenile delinquency. The thing is I have worked with people less fortunate and seen how their children are punished by the school system for having autism. But that’s the subject of another blog.

For now we’re just overjoyed to get Buddy into this program and out of the schools. End of February!

Buddy, Age 5

Buddy turned five a bit over a week ago. Lately we’ve seen some incredible progress which is encouraging, while the developmental delays and autistic traits can remain frustrating.

The good news is I did talk to his doctor about getting a referral for genetic testing. My doctor had read about the study I had referenced and got me in contact with a doctor who could do it. I’m hoping we’ll get some useful information, but if not we’ll be contributing to the body of knowledge about autism, and hopefully it’ll help some other family down the line.

As for the good news, we’re able to understand more of what Buddy is saying. It’s very concrete, nothing abstract. For instance I was walking into his room and he asked, “Where are you going?” I said, “To your room.” “What are you doing?” “Getting your clothes.” This is as much conversation as I can get out of him.

As always, he’s saying a lot that we can’t understand, but he’s also repeating himself. Used to be if we said, “didn’t catch that, what did you say?” he’d become discouraged and stop talking. Now he’ll repeat himself over and over again, which I see as progress.

The frustrating thing is that there’s no pattern to how he is mispronouncing his words. His speech sounds like it is slowed down, but one day he could pronounce his t’s like a d and another day pronounce them like an m. There’s nothing consistent about it, so it makes figuring out his speech a constant challenge.

His receptive language seems to be improving. He’s following directions better. He’s also started singing songs with me again.

The most exciting development has been with drawing. Yesterday he had a pad of paper and a marker and started saying “circle,” “nose.” I looked at what he was drawing and saw it was a face. I asked who it was and he said it was “Buddy face.” I never hear him refer to himself by name! Never! If people ask him his name he just repeats, “name.” He’s also never taken an interest in his reflection in the mirror, though he does like looking at pics and videos of himself. Still, drawing a self-portrait seemed groundbreaking. Then he drew “daddy face.”

I asked him if he wanted to put his picture on the fridge and he did! Considering he doesn’t show off his accomplishments much, that was also something.

The aggression with his sister has stopped, and sometimes he plays well with her, other times he tries to pretend she doesn’t exist. When they ride in the wagon together he sings a song called “Stomping feet” with her that is way too cute.

Now the frustrations. Really, it’s the typical winter frustrations. It being dark so often is very problematic. For one thing, he’ll go around the house turning off all of the lights. This gets very annoying, as it’s hard to do much in a pitch black house and makes mornings even more challenging because I’m fighting with him over the lights being off as I’m getting everyone ready to go.

He does not do this during the day, and I honestly think he believes that because it’s dark outside of the house, it has to be dark inside of the house, and having the lights on when it’s dark outside really upsets him. Looking forward to spring and LIGHT!

The other side of this is he thinks it’s bedtime when it’s dark, but 5:00PM is WAY too early for bedtime, and convincing him to stay up till 8 has been a challenge. Lately he’s been getting up at 5AM, which is also way too early.

The more I think about it, the more his sleep problems seem tied to when it’s gets dark and light. The good news in all of this is typically his behavior starts to disintegrate at this time of the year because we don’t get outside as much, but this year he’s been keeping himself under control.

The other frustration is the fact that he vehemently refuses to potty. He will change his own diapers, which is fine when it’s a wet diaper, but when it’s a poopy diaper he makes a huge mess. He’s getting to this awkward point where he’s embarrassed by it and does not want me or Andy to change him, but doing the natural consequences of having him clean himself up is still not enough to motivate him to use the potty. I am so flummoxed by this, especially since his school is really putting a lot of pressure on me with this, but I am stumped as to what to do. NOTHING I have read addresses a situation like ours. Buddy knows how to potty, he’s done it at daycare, but at school and home he will not do it. And if one more so-called specialist tells me about another worthless picture chart I’m going to scream.

I figure we have to be near the breaking point on the potty training thing with Buddy. This is starting to inconvenience him as much as it is inconveniencing us and sooner rather than later, hopefully, he’ll realize it’s in his best interest to use the potty. I am hoping this is one of those situations where it gets worse before it gets better. Because  it is immensely frustrating.

The good news with Sissy is that she is already showing interest in potty training and has told us when she’s about to make a poopy, though her timing is off. I have a hunch we’re going to get them both out of diapers at the same time.


One of Each

My son, Buddy, will be five in a few months. My daughter, Sissy, is about 18 months. As I was the first of two girls I guess I always thought I’d have two girls myself, but I ended up having one of each. What interests with having one of each is the question of their differences. How much is personality? My sister and I are complete 180s and we were both girls. How much of it is the fact that Buddy is mildly autistic while Sissy does not appear to be autistic? How much is gender?

Buddy does have some very traditional masculine traits, and Sissy some very feminine ones. Yet what is masculine about Buddy he gets from me, and feminine about Sissy she gets from my husband.

Andy and I are rather open minded. We both want to encourage whatever interests they have, even if those interests aren’t gender typical. Buddy once really wanted a My Little Pony doll and it was no skin off our nose. Sissy loves playing with cars and is fascinated with books on them.

This morning I took them shopping, and Buddy saw some “Star Wars” balls. He really wanted one, so I grabbed it. Sissy saw this and wanted one of her own, and ever eager to indulge them in all thing Geek, I got her one. Buddy saw that she had one and decided he wanted a second one, and even the most devoted of Geek moms have to draw the line somewhere. Overall Sissy is mostly interested in the toys she sees Buddy playing with. She’s not paid too much attention to the sole doll she has, granted it may change as she grows older (I used to brag about how not all boys like cars because Buddy couldn’t be bothered with them, and then BOOM, Hot Wheels were suddenly the best thing ever according to him).

All the same, Sissy really gets into having her hair done and choosing which hair bow she gets to wear. Obviously Buddy does not wear bows. Well, when she was an infant he would take them off of her and put them on him, but eventually he got bothered with how they felt and stopped. So while she really wants to play with the toys that Buddy does, she doesn’t want to dress like him.

I dropped Buddy off at school and went home with Sissy, and she started kicking the ball to me. Later she hung up a dress on a hanger and walked to the closet and tried to put it up (she was obviously too short for this). I keep saying that in a few years her room will be immaculate and his will be a disaster area. Yet this is one of those cases where like her kicking me the soccer ball (Buddy would not have done that at her age, he just hoarded toys he didn’t actually play with them) I’m not sure if it’s gender or autism.

When you have one of each, it seems as if it would be so easy to caulk up every behavioral difference as gender related. Sissy is good at cleaning because she’s a girl. Buddy loves hiking because he’s a boy. But there are so many other factors it’s really hard to say. And, when dealing with such a small sample size, really hard to draw sweeping conclusions either way.

And at the end of the day, as long as they grow up strong in the ways of the Geek, then it really doesn’t matter.

The Nature of Memory

Last night my husband and I had a disagreement as to whether or not I got mad at him and threatened his life while I was in labor with our children. I don’t remember being mad at him, and I actually don’t remember talking much while in labor. I get quiet when I’m stressed and tend not to talk. Andy agreed that I didn’t talk while I was in labor, but immediately after having Buddy I did, and I was cursing Andy’s existence.

I asked him what he was talking about, and he said that when my blood pressure dropped, I started hallucinating and cursing him.

Now let me back up. After Buddy was born his lungs had a hard time fully expanding so they took him to the NICU as a precaution. Andy left with Buddy. Sometime after that I started to get cold and was shivering. The nurse told me it was normal and wrapped me in some heated blankets. Sometime after that, though, my blood pressure started to drop.

So there I was wrapped in heated blankets and suddenly I was getting incredibly hot and feeling extremely weak. So weak that, wrapped in blankets as I was, I couldn’t even lift my arms to hit the nurse call button. I remember being ALONE, my blood pressure dropping, and getting scared that no one would notice.

Eventually the nurse came in and my blood pressure stabilized without me fainting. Life went on. That’s how I remember it at least.

Andy remembers that he was in the NICU briefly and was sent out and he returned to my room and was there when my blood pressure dropped, and that when it happened I started hallucinating. The way he describes it is like something from “The Exorcist.” Now, Andy is prone to exaggeration. And his memory of how things happen change to justify whatever point he is making. That’s the way I see it at least.

So I remember being alone when my blood pressure plummeted. Andy remembers being there and witnessing quite the show.

And, here’s the thing, we’re not going to be able to prove it one way or the other. And therein lies the fascinating thing about memory. It is highly reconstructive. Meaning that rather than pulling up a blow by blow video tape of how the event unfolded, we’re really retelling the events in our mind, making them prone to errors in the retelling process. Kind of like a game of Telephone.

We like to think of our memories as an accurate tape recording of what happened, but this is not the case, for many reasons. For one thing, how we process the information our senses are receiving may not be accurate. For instance, if I was hallucinating I might remember seeing a floating tree in the room and really it was just the funny angle I was looking at the curtains. So we may not be accurately storing what we hear, see, taste or smell in the first place.

Second we often see our memories through the lenses and biases of the present. So, let’s say Andy thinks that I was cursing his hide, hence he remembers me hallucinating when I wasn’t.

Elizabeth Loftus’ research on memory is fascinating. Yet when I read it, I can’t help but wonder if ANYTHING I remember is anywhere close to what really happened. For the most part, this doesn’t matter too much. There’s no life or death decision in the balance of whether or not I hallucinated when my blood pressure dropped after having Buddy.

Other times this helps to explain why a strange event occurred and, in attempting to explain it, people devised a supernatural explanation. This is also mostly equally harmless. But when determining a person’s innocence or guilt based solely on memory, this becomes more problematic. Think about it. Think about all of the times you remembered something one way and someone else remembered it completely different. Think about it.