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Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Through the Eyes of Autism - part 1

This post is the first in a series inspired by a recent blog post written by "Mama Be Good" ( The Autism System: Not Good Enough ). 

In her post, the author (mom of a son with autism) talks about the unintentional messages we can give to our children, students and loved ones who have autism when our goal is "fixing" them. Without meaning to, we focus on the negatives - the "can't do's", the difficult behaviour and struggles with learning and interaction - to the point that we see a "to do" list rather than a person. We accidentally treat them as "less than", and this is a message they absorb.

Drawing for communication has allowed the people I work with to share their inner perceptions and perspectives on the situations they meet in their daily lives. Today I would like to invite you into a world that I have been privileged to see by sharing some drawings with you:

Brett is verbal (AS) but has difficulty discussing emotionally loaded topics. He never liked gym class, especially in the spring and fall when there were outdoor activities. To find out what was behind the distress, we discussed the situation through drawing.

note: I am sharing this very personal glimpse into Brett's mind with his permission (he thinks it might be helpful to you)

I drew out the initial class situation where the gym teacher is asking them to run laps around the outdoor track (Brett is the guy with the dark cloud over his head):

2006 - "the setup" by Sheila B

Then I handed the pen to Brett, and he drew out the next series of pictures:

2006 - by Brett

He had always referred to this gym activity as the "death run", and now we knew why. From his perspective, 5 laps in the hot sun was a trip around the world ... past the Eiffel Tower, through Russia and past the Taj Mahal, across the desert and past the Pyramids, across the ocean ... only to end up half-dead as "last runner in" with the gym teacher "tsk tsking". The sun was too hot, the run too long, the bugs (featured in other drawings of outdoor gym class) too annoying.

--- and may I just say here that my friend Brett's "dark humour" is his trademark, cutting and hilarious, constantly and effectively illustrating his frustration with the inflexibility and absurd assumptions of the NT world - I love it ---

He also drew out two "wishful thinking" alternatives to the "death run". 

One which I think he actually tried (a quick exit from class):

2006 - by Brett

and one which he only entertained in his "thought bubble" (running mini-laps):

2006 - by Brett


And educational. Once we knew Brett's perspective on the situation, it was possible to give him help and support that worked for him. I have to say that the teachers at Brett's schools were really good with him - respectful of the information that he put out through his drawings, and willing to accommodate because they could "see" where he was coming from.

Drawing for communication is an effective method to help the "helpers" understand how the person with ASD sees the situation - what do they want? what do they need? what's giving them trouble? - valid and important perspectives that provide the information we really need to help a person with ASD integrate and deal with the world to the extent that they need and want to.

Respect, love, humour and understanding .... that would be my prescription.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

A day to spoil your moms!

In honour of Mother's Day tomorrow ... 

I would like to share with you one of my all-time favourite "mom" portraits, drawn by Adam when he was 10 years old, and just beginning to express himself through his drawings: 

drawn by Adam (2000)

Adam loves his mom. At the time he created this picture, Halloween monsters and creatures were his passion. He draws "mommy" as a "mummy", the highest compliment, and the facial expressions suggest that he and his mom are set for risky (but fun) adventures at a moment's notice.

When Adam was small, his mom was not only the center of his world, but the only salient part - the lone voice he recognized and responded to, the single person he actually "knew". As he's grown, his world has expanded to include other people, but she is still the constant (and I would guess still the favourite ... sorry Case!).

So to all the extraordinary moms of kids with autism - the ones who listen, help, teach, defend, comfort, love, etc, etc, on a daily basis - I'd just like to say, from one mom to another:


... and I hope you get (edible) breakfast in bed!

Monday, May 7, 2012

A glimpse back at where one boy's drawing for communication started

We have gradually been expanding the library of teaching videos on our YouTube channel (AUTISMartCOMMUNICATE). One of our recent videos features Kevin, a less verbal young man (age 20) who has a diagnosis of autism. I have known Kevin since 1998, and we have been drawing together since 1999.

picture of Mr Bean & Teddy at the movies by Kevin

I thought it would be interesting for you to see where Kevin started. In March 2000, when Kevin was 7 years old, we videotaped some of our therapy activities - this series of 5 short video clips (extracted from those tapes) gives a "flavour" of who Kevin was at that point. He was a beautiful boy, physically delicate with many medical issues, and he was mostly non-verbal (occasional single words to give basic information, echoing of longer word strings from computer games and movies). He was prone to melt-downs, especially in the school environment, and would be unable to say what was wrong. He was clearly intelligent but very difficult to engage in social/communication interactions.

Click the following links to see the video clips:

Kevin (2000) - part 1 - hard to engage

Kevin (2000) - part 2 - non-verbal turn-taking

Kevin (2000) - part 3 - simple dramatic play & scripted story play

Kevin (2000) - part 4 - Kevin engages in drawing

Kevin (2000) - part 5 - drawing of person continues

I'm still hoping to be able to post the longer versions of these therapy clips, but at the moment, these small snippets are all that I was able to successfully convert from my old VHS videotapes to video files that will play on YouTube.

Drawing was a context that gave us long stretches of quiet focused attentive interaction. The boy who actively blocked me out of his play scenarios (in favour of playing every part himself) would now watch and listen and soak up all of the information, then wait for more. It felt like magic to a desperate "attention-seeking" therapist like myself.

Over the years, we have used drawing to teach language, literacy and many other social and academic topics. Kevin draws wonderful stories full of emotional reactions and interactions between the characters (usually Mr. Bean, Teddy and the members of Kevin's immediate family). We "back-fill" meaning into his reading and writing activities as we draw out the complete meanings of the words and phrases. In addition, his mom has made an extensive library of visual teaching materials to help Kevin learn complex subjects (like higher level math & computer animation) with meaning. He is an intelligent young man who learns in a very different way.

Here's an entertaining series of pictures from last week, when Kevin and I were doing a language drawing activity involving unscrambling word tiles to make words, then writing and illustrating the word. Successive turns added more words that created a growing phrase with constantly changing meaning. Take a look (all writing and pictures by Kevin):

When you do activities like this, the point is teaching not testing.When we added the fourth word, Kevin did not fully understand the meaning of the new phrase:

He drew the baby eating an apple, and then drew the wart? or eyeball? protruding from the top of the baby's head - we weren't able to figure out what this was, and Kevin couldn't verbally explain it (but he put it there very carefully and purposefully, so it obviously reflected what he thought the changed sentence meant). I then added the visual clue of the sad face by the word "sadly" and he drew the worm in the apple (apparently the reason that the baby was sad). When we asked him how the worm made the baby feel, he drew the arrow and the second picture showing a sad baby.

And here's a recent video of Kevin drawing with me (demonstrating a language-learning drawing activity). Kevin has developed his own distinctive style - he draws in a relaxed confident way, and he enjoys displaying his art-work to share it with his family.

Click the following link to see the video:

Kevin (2012) - give & follow directions (a language drawing activity)

It's hard to connect this calm young man sitting attentively beside me, interacting visually and verbally, with the challenging reactive young boy that he used to be - but they're one and the same. Drawing is a great way to make the connection and find out who's inside the complicated exterior.

drawing of Mr. Bean & Teddy by Kevin

I love a surprise ending!