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Monday, February 17, 2014

Help! I've fallen and I can't get up!

"Falling down is part of life, getting back up is living.
 Even the Sun falls down everyday but gets back up the next morning." ~ Unknown

Here is a visual question I gave Adam back in 2001, when he was 11 years old and just starting to tell us his thoughts through his drawing:

Translated to traditional language, I guess it would be: "What will the man do now that his hat has fallen off his head and over a cliff?" (a classic cartoon set-up). Does the man value the hat? Will he take a risk to retrieve it? or will he turn his back, curse his luck and buy another?

In Adam's visual "answer", the man decides to take a risk and go after his hat. Did he slip while reaching? Did he not think it through and just jump? I don't know, but he does seem a bit surprised by the outcome.

As luck would have it, he manages to grab the small stick protruding from the cliff. Whew! Sometimes in life, a bit of luck and quick reflexes allow us to save ourselves from rash choices or bad circumstances. I love how pleased (and unsurprised) the little guy is with this turn of events.

But of course, this is life and one fall can often be followed by another (especially when the author of your life story has a sense of humour like Adam's). The stick breaks and the little person is once again plummeting down the side of the cliff, wearing another expression of surprise at the hand life has dealt him.

And sooner or later, in real life or cartoon life, we have to hit bottom. Going by the man's face, this was a hard landing (one that would have you sitting on a donut pillow for at least a week or so).

We all fall down. Sometimes we fall multiple times without rising in-between - we can fall far and hit bottom very hard. We get the wind knocked out of us figuratively and literally. We may say to ourselves "I don't know how to recover from this one, it's too big, it's too hard, it's one too many, I can't get up". So we lay there for a while ... but then what?

In Adam's story, the man simply takes a breath, retrieves his hat (which he had the good luck to fall beside, rather than on), dusts it off, puts it on his head, stands up and walks on.

The drawn end of this story is very interesting to me in light of who Adam has revealed himself to be over the past 13 years since he drew this story. He is a person who faces many challenges every day, including communication disconnects, sensory overload, debilitating allergies and medical conditions ( click here for a piece of the medical back story ). I have seen him laid low time and again, and time and again I have seen him stand up, pick up his figurative hat, and walk forward. He doesn't get angry, he doesn't do "poor me", he just gets up and goes on.

Here's some advice that I give to the kids and families I work with (and that I follow myself when I'm having a "smart day"):

When you've fallen and you don't think you can get up, consider your alternatives: staying where you are is not usually a good one, and if you're as low as you can go almost any choice or action could potentially put you in a better spot.

So take action. Do something. It's a strategy I use when I clean up a particularly large mess (I hate housework): if I think about it too hard, I'm frozen into inaction ("this mess is too big", "no one could clean this up", "we just have to move"). So instead, I go "round and round" doing something: "this coat doesn't belong in the sink, I'll hang it up", "no one needs 4 hockey sticks in the living room, so I'll put 3 in the garage", "why is there a live turtle in the dining room? don't think, just put it back in the pond" (I have 3 boys and a small house, we have had some memorable messes). As each bit of mess goes away, the overall picture changes and new ideas and solutions present themselves ("oh look, the broom was buried under the dirty laundry! the perfect tool for sweeping the baking soda & vinegar science project volcano eruption off the ceiling!"). Before you know it, you step back and realize that this problem might be fixable after all.

When you fall down, don't just lie there .. do something. Take one small step and then another. No matter the problems or circumstances, action feels better than inaction, and each action plants seeds that can change things for the better.

Postscript (courtesy of my good friend Bernadette who recently sent this video my way)

A final musical word from the late great Pete Seeger - as I tackle problems big and small, this song (one of my favourites) reminds me that things usually work out better when I manage to put aside my worries, take action, plant the seeds and see what happens:

Inch by inch, row by row,
Gonna make this garden grow.
Gonna mulch it deep and low,
Gonna make it fertile ground.
Inch by inch, row by row,
Please bless these seeds I sow.
Please keep them safe below
'Til the rain comes tumbling down.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Teaching Art to Students on the Autism Spectrum: Follow Me!

Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life ~ Pablo Picasso
If you've been following this blog, you'll know that I recently went back to art school ... best thing I could have done to dust off my mental health and start the new year with a fresh perspective. A bonus side effect is that I'm learning new things that I can share with my students on the spectrum.

"Artist" by Adam

I've written previously about the methods I use to teach art to students with a wide range of communication profiles:
Click here to read my previous post on art instruction methods

The method I refer to as "Follow Me" involves sitting side-by-side with your student, demonstrating new materials and techniques step-by-step - showing rather than telling.
Click here to watch a short teaching video demonstrating the "Follow Me" method of art instruction

The class I'm taking at the Ottawa School of Art is an introduction to painting with oils and acrylics, and over the past few weeks, Kevin and Adam have also been learning about how to paint with acrylics, starting with a review of colour mixing and light and shadow (concepts we first introduced when they were in high school art class). We use our art sessions as an opportunity to extend language skills (vocabulary and concepts).

Here are some pictures Kevin drew of cartoon Mr. Bean and Teddy going to art school and learning colour mixing:

drawn by Kevin (Jan 2014)
drawn by Kevin (Jan 2014)

drawn by Kevin (Jan 2014)

drawn by Kevin (Jan 2014)

And now we've moved on to painting still life compositions on canvas boards, using artist quality paints and easels (if you want your students to love making art, you have to give them good quality materials to work with).

Here's some photos of Kevin and I during a recent therapy session:

Kevin and I sit side-by-side, both of us painting the still life - Kevin follows my model
I help Kevin to see the light and shadow in our still life composition by pointing it out directly
Instead of a lengthy verbal explanation, I show Kevin how we can use paint to create shadows

We both step back to admire our paintings - I love seeing Kevin's obvious pride and joy in his artwork
Fruit still life painted by Kevin (Jan 2014)

And don't forget to tailor your student's art projects to their personal interests and favourite topics - let your art sessions be an opportunity to express passion for what is dearly loved and wash away some of the "dust of everyday life".

Kevin's second still life features his beloved Teddy (who looks exactly like Mr. Bean's Teddy)

It would be possible to describe everything scientifically, but it would make no sense; it would be without meaning, as if you described a Beethoven symphony as a variation of wave pressure ~ Albert Einstein

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Fear and Hope

 Today's post doesn't have to do with autism specifically, but it has to do with life and family:

Fear is an emotion we are all familiar with. We fear the unknown, we fear loss, we fear losing control of our lives. The hard truth is that many of the most important things in life are outside of our control, including the health and well-being of ourselves and those we love.

And so the challenging part: what do we do when we realize our limitations to control life and make it "safe"? Can we meet fear with hope and live our lives to the fullest not only despite having this knowledge, but because of it?

Today I have a guest blogger who is a husband and father - he shares the story of his wife and young family, a challenging life-threatening illness, and their life-affirming and hopeful response to the curve that life has thrown at them:

My name is Cameron Von St. James and I’m a husband to one of the strongest people I know. Eight years ago, after our only child was born, my wife Heather was diagnosed with mesothelioma – a rare cancer caused only by asbestos exposure. My wife’s chronic illness taught our family the importance of acknowledging and overcoming our fears, something that prevent us all from living life to the fullest.
This February 2nd marks the 8th anniversary of Heather’s life saving surgery, which involved a risky procedure requiring the removal of her left lung. It is a very special day to me and is considered one of the memorable days of my life! We’ve coined this day as LungLeavin’ Day.
The purpose of LungLeavin’ Day is to encourage and empower others battling their own illnesses and life challenges to face their fears! On this day we celebrate for those who are no longer with us, for those who continue to fight, for those who are currently going through a tough time in their life, and most importantly, we celebrate life! Each year, friends and family gather at our house around a bonfire where we write our fears on a plate and smash them into the fire to represent conquering our fears.
 This year, we are asking bloggers to participate in LungLeavin’ Day! We’ve created an interactive page that tells the full story of this special day, which can be found here:
 I’d love for you to check out the page and consider sharing it on your blog to help spread the word about LungLeavin’ Day! It would mean so much to Heather and I.

So tomorrow is LungLeavin' Day - a great day for writing your fears on a plate and smashing them in the fire!
All the best to Heather, Cameron and Lily. May you celebrate this way for many years to come!

Monday, January 27, 2014

Balance: Taking Time to Paint the Peppers

The calm and balanced mind is the strong and great mind; the hurried and agitated mind is the weak one. Wallace D. Wattles

Painting by Sheila B (me!)

This red pepper (actually half a red pepper) is my personal visual for balance at the start of 2014. Why, you may ask? ... well, I'll tell you:

I hit an unexpectedly big low at the end of last year, the kind that sweeps in from your blind side and knocks you right out of your life for a few days. I was surprised, but on reflection realized I shouldn't have been - for most of 2013, my attention had been almost exclusively outward, problem-solving and balancing the lives of others but neglecting my own mental health. Not something I can afford to do. So with the support of my nearest and dearest, and a visit to the therapist who has helped me through many ups and downs, I made a plan to restore my inner balance. Part of that plan was signing up for art classes after a 10 year hiatus. The lovely red pepper painting (an exercise in colour mixing) sits on my dining room table, reminding me to take time to do the things I love (and I love losing myself for several hours putting paint on canvas) not just the things that are required and needful.

This type of re-balancing of life is something we must continuously be mindful of for our students and family members on the autism spectrum. It needs to become a stronger message in the world of autism intervention, which has the tendency to be dominated by the more panicked messages of "Hurry! More! Quick! Critical Learning Window Closing! Work Harder! Work Longer! Don't Fall Behind!!!"


This animation of an exhausted high school student was created by my friend Owen, a clear visual of his inner state as he struggles to keep his balance in the "work storm" of summative projects and exam preparation that happens at the end of each high school semester.

Exhausted thinking is not generally a person's best thinking. Even at the busiest times in the school year, I encourage Owen to block out time in his schedule for relaxation and things that he loves - he is lucky to have understanding parents and teachers who support this message:

Owen loves a "snow day" (no school, too much snow!!)
... and he really loves watching movies

So you need to find out what it is that your ASD student/child/client truly enjoys, and make sure that you purposely make room in the schedule for that activity. If it's something you also love, make time to do it together - take a skate after school instead of sitting down at a table piled with homework, draw or paint, listen to music, read a story, watch a favourite show together. Alternatively, their favourite relaxation activity may be something you don't really understand, but you know that they love - like sitting alone & reciting the play-by-play of last night's hockey game or losing themselves in the tactile & sensory pleasure of running their hands through a bucket of beads (many of the things that are dismissed as "stimming" are actually pleasurable, relaxing and "balancing" things for the person on the autism spectrum) - respect their perspective and set aside the time.

If you're still not convinced that "time to do something fun" belongs on the busy work schedule of your person, I'd ask you to consider these words from the author James Carroll on the utility of doing nothing in particular:
We collect data, things, people, ideas, profound experiences, never penetrating any of them ... But there are other times. There are times when we stop. We sit still. We lose ourselves in a pile of leaves or its memory. We listen and breezes from a whole other world begin to whisper. James Carroll

Make time to take time - you won't be sorry that you did.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

More Gifts of Learning from 2013

As promised, just in time for Christmas, some more interesting and entertaining pictures created by my students this year:

From Michael (whose favourite pop music radio station is "Hot 89.9") - here are the album covers he imagines for some of this year's hit songs:


From Emma (a lover of Disney movies & royal fashion) some pictures of princes and princesses drawn on the iPad app "Drawing with Carl":

Prince & Princess




More iPad drawing from Kevin and Adam, using the app Sketchbook Pro (which allows you to draw in layers & has many professional artist tools):

"Hobbes" by Adam

"Calvin" by Kevin

"Mr. Bean shoots Teddy out of a cannon" by Kevin

More scenes with Mr. Bean, Teddy, Kevin and his brother Raymond - drawn by Kevin in a "Scrambled Sentences" language comprehension activity:


And finally, some thoughts from Michael on "good vs bad behaviour":

(and I agree whole-heartedly with the rule he came up with!)

People on the autism spectrum can't always express themselves clearly through verbal language. Unconventional modes of communication, like drawing, can help the rest of us to see the true creativity, intelligence, humour and imagination that exist behind the unusual exterior.

Have a safe and happy holiday season .... wishing you a creative and interesting 2014!!

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Gifts of Learning

It's December already! In the spirit of the gift-giving season, over the next couple of weeks, I'd like to share some of the cool things my students created this year:

We've been having a lot of fun using iPad animation apps to learn conventional language. Here's a film that Adam drew using FlipBoom Cartoon (sentence constructed in Word Mover app) - goals were sentence construction and comprehension:


And here's a film from Kevin (also drawn on FlipBoom Cartoon) that extends the exercise into writing and drawing a short paragraph:


And the next step is a story - "Mad Scientist & Mummy" is an original story by Adam, "written" through drawing in 2001 (when he was 11 years old). He revisits it in 2013 and turns it into an animated tale (once again using FlipBoom Cartoon):


Hope you enjoy these films, and stay tuned for more .... coming soon!

Sheila B

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Live Squirrels in the Bedroom (the fine line between coping & losing it completely)

We've all had those times in our lives ... a lot is happening both good and bad, crises are coming up but we're managing, maybe we're even bold or foolhardy enough to congratulate ourselves that where lesser mortals might fall down we're still standing and maybe even winning ... and then that one extra thing happens that tips it all over the edge ...


For me, it was a "scritch scritch" window screen sound on a morning when I finally thought I might be getting ahead of the stream of crises that seem to define my work-life every fall. I got up from my computer, strolled down the hallway, opened my bedroom door, did a double-take, screamed, slammed the door and let out a few "star words" (you know, the kind you put ** into when you write them in a public forum) ... there was a squirrel, a cute little red squirrel (think Beatrix Potter), on the INSIDE of my bedroom window screen, running up and down my curtains.

My personal life experience (which I won't go into here since it involves a series of improbable tales that are frequently Monty Python-esque) actually includes more than one other story where a live squirrel has ended up inside our house, so I did possess the tools (live traps) and experience to meet the challenge. But when this particular rodent decided to make itself at home in my bedroom curtains, I didn't react calmly or heroically ... instead, I dissolved into a moment of pure panic and meltdown (as I'm writing this now, I'm really hoping that none of my neighbours were near enough to hear the ** words that came out quickly, colourfully and at a pretty good volume) ... and I was hit with the sudden realization (think cartoon hammer bonk to the head) that I was not coping with all the change and constant crisis nearly as well as I thought I was.

Long story short: I pulled myself back together, set a trap, left the house to go to work, found solutions for a couple more crises, came home and (mercifully) found a small peanut-butter covered squirrel in the trap (and squirrel poop on my bed). In my younger years, this wouldn't have worn me out ... in my older (saner?) years, I was surprised at how much it knocked me back (I think I said "I'm getting too old for this star word").

Still, good story (especially in the longer version with more detailed descriptions of the squirrel's moves and my counter-moves), so when I went to see Adam and his family the next day, I was looking forward to entertaining them with it.

Only to have my story totally overshadowed by what had happened at Adam's house the previous day ... while I was chasing a squirrel, Beth (Adam's mom) was putting out a fire (a real one, in her kitchen, by herself ... she's so competitive).

Let me explain:

Adam is extremely particular about his food. He has a very limited diet, and will not eat any alternatives if his particular brand of a certain "approved" food is not available. Before lunch, Beth (his mom) discovered that they were out of his apple juice, so off to the store, which as luck would have it was out of his brand of juice that day. Quick trip home to drop off the groceries they had bought, with Beth's mind only on whether Adam could tolerate yet another unplanned trip to a second store to get the apple juice (needed for him to have the lunch he expected). Second store had the juice, Adam managed the trip, and the single thought in Beth's mind as they got to their front door was helping Adam keep his balance by getting him his lunch as quickly as possible.

For those of you who have autism in the family, that series of events won't sound unfamiliar. Each person on the spectrum has things that they can and can't tolerate, and the consequences of taking a person with autism over the edge of what they can manage are often severe. When you live this way for many years, your priorities shift, with almost everything taking a back seat to helping the ASD person maintain their equilibrium ... which explains the series of events that happened next:

When they opened the front door, there was smoke coming from the kitchen. In situations like this, the human mind goes on auto-pilot. As Beth's mind quickly and automatically sifted through the list of priorities, getting Adam back on track (by making him lunch) still hit the top. She told Adam not to worry, left him at the door and ran in to find that a stove burner on low had started a grocery box on fire.

So what did she do? Scream? Cry? Run out? No .. in Adam's words (see below) she "cleaned the kitchen" .. no hysterics, no fuss, just coolly and calmly put out the fire.

And even at this point, the fire didn't reach the top of the priority/panic list, other than as an obstacle to cooking Adam his lunch.
The fire was not the tipping point, but the fact that the microwave and stove were now unusable could have been. Why? Because Adam has a narrow definition of what makes an acceptable lunch and all of the menu options require cooking. Fortunately for everyone, Adam decided that when your stove catches fire, toast is allowed for lunch - he ate at the kitchen counter and Beth cleaned up the rest of the fire mess (without the luxury of pitching a fit like I did when I first saw the squirrel).
Story the third (don't worry, it all ties together!):

A few nights ago, I had a vivid dream about a zombie apocalypse. The zombie mayhem happened at a cocktail party, so prior to the attack I had been looking pretty spiffy. I had a "worst case scenario" outcome I guess, because my next conscious moment was rising from the dead as an undead zombie. My first thought was "hey, this isn't as bad as I feared it might be", followed quickly by "yay, what luck, I managed to keep hold of my sparkly bedazzled evening purse!" As my fellow undead and I gathered on the dance floor, I was extremely popular because my evening purse turned out to be full of lip gloss (tubes and tubes of it) which I shared around after realizing that getting a cold sore wasn't a problem anymore (and zombie lips really do need a little colour).
Then I spotted my husband John, who had escaped becoming undead. For some reason he seemed terrified of me. Wanting to reassure him that I was okay and that being a zombie wasn't as bad as everyone had made out, I demonstrated to him (with giant scissors that suddenly appeared in my hand) how I could easily trim off damaged and decomposing body parts because my new body was like a plastic doll. I woke up with a strong feeling of surprise because it was obvious that my demo was not calming John down.
While a mental health professional might have something to say about the underlying mix of thoughts and experiences that would cough up a night-time story of this nature, it was actually a very happy dream for me: the worst happened, I was changed but not defeated, and I even found a way to bring a little joy and colour back to the party. Win, win, win!
Life has a habit of throwing surprises at us, and not all of them are positive or easy to deal with. When our lives include people on the autism spectrum, we have the extra challenge of supporting and shielding a person who doesn't do well with unexpected events, and it's easy to get into a state where your mental "panic button" is always partially engaged.
My best suggestion is to embrace the craziness of life rather than fighting it. Find the humour, celebrate the absurd, and collect friends who do the same. When you tip over the edge, lie there for a minute, use some "star words", then get up and jump right back into the zombie apocalypse party.
... and if you're looking for me and my "crew", I'll be the one wearing bright red lip gloss and holding a sparkly purse with a squirrel in it, my girl Beth will be wearing a determined expression and toting a fire extinguisher, and my friend Adam will be smiling and thoroughly enjoying the ghoulish ambience (because monsters and zombies and all things "Halloweeny" have always been his favourite)