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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)

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Classroom Solutions - helping noise-sensitive students to cope

September can be a difficult month in the school system, as everyone (students, teachers, parents) gets used to new classrooms, new groups, and new expectations. 


This picture, drawn by Owen (and used with his permission), for me perfectly encapsulates the feelings of distress and irritation that can develop on all sides of the classroom dynamic, especially during the early weeks of the school term.

Here are some ideas to help you and your noise-sensitive students through any current rough spots, while laying the ground-work to create a learning environment that will be effective for the school year ahead:

1. Look at the problem from all sides:

Owen drew his perspective for me, clearly showing that he felt his noisy classroom situation was not working out for him, but also not working for the other students and the teacher. During our discussion, we used clues and tried to "guess" what was in the minds of the other people in the situation. This helped Owen to understand why some of the other students might be distracted and having trouble settling down to work, also why the teacher might be finding it frustrating as well (trying to teach when people weren't focused and listening).

It was important to him that I shared his drawn perspective with the teachers, so that he was sure they were aware of how upset he felt.

2. Figure out what you control and what you don't:

This is a critical part of the problem-solving process, because anger and frustration are driven by feeling powerless to change a difficult situation. Finding out where your power is (what do you control?) gives a starting point for effective solutions.

Here is a simple visual that I have often drawn for my students to show them what they control and what they don't:

Essentially, you have direct control over everything that is connected to your brain - your thoughts/feelings, your words, your actions. Your words and actions may "influence" another person's choices (this is the world of social cues), but you can't control what another person chooses to do, say, think or feel.

* aside: it's interesting how often I have to remind myself of this exact thing when I'm sorting out difficult situations in my own life *

3. Define the problem and generate a list of possible solutions:

Owen is extremely noise sensitive and his ability to process spoken information in the presence of background noise is not strong. The classroom was noisy and several students were being disruptive. Owen was able to define his core problems as: (1) clearly receiving the teacher's lesson and instructions, and (2) being able to focus and do his work.

Once we had clarified what the real problems were, Owen and I were able to come up with a list of potential solutions:

Notice that all of these strategies have to do with things that Owen has direct control over in the situation - they let him know that he does have power to change things for the better.

4. Get help for what is out of your control:

Even with the above solutions, this is a difficult on-going situation for Owen to manage (noise is a huge irritant that disrupts his thinking). Owen and I have known each other a long time, and he has confidence that I will act as his advocate and "go-between", explaining his distress to the other adults. He also has great confidence in the teachers at his school - they have helped him solve difficult situations many times over the years, and he is 100% certain that they "have his back".

True solutions to challenging school situations require on-going collaboration between the student, teachers, parents and any other professionals involved. Keeping good lines of communication going helps everyone to stay calm and have confidence that solutions can be found (no matter how difficult the events of the day may have been)

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Long-term success in autism ... How will you feed the joy?

Today on the blog we welcome a "guest blogger": Carole, mom of Kevin (whose art work has been featured in previous blog posts). Kevin is a young adult on the autism spectrum with limited verbal language who uses drawing for communication.

Kevin playing the drums

Those of you who have been following our blog for a while may remember reading a bit about Kevin's early days in a post called A glimpse back at where one boy's drawing for communication started - the post included links to video clips of young Kevin and older Kevin, giving an idea of how far he has come. I recommend that you take a look at those clips before you read what his mom has to say:

How Will You Feed the Joy? by Carole G

(originally published in the Fall 2013 Access Integration newsletter of CISS Ottawa)

I’m sure there is not a parent among us raising a child with special needs, who does not have forever imprinted on their minds and in their hearts, the day their child was diagnosed. For our little family, it was the virtual blow from a two by four to the gut; the breathless shock to the system; the blood rushing to your face and the feeling that you needed to sink to your knees as some faceless voice uttered “severely autistic”. It’s amazing what power a few little words, quietly spoken, can have on a whole bunch of lives. Then comes the ricochet effect as the power of love for your child sends you hurtling into action as if on a permanent adrenaline rush: therapy, preschool, social programs, interventions, doctors, what program, how many hours, what can we afford, who are the best service providers and how much can we fit into a day? All the while, like an irritating song stuck in your head, the words so many will utter without truly understanding the impact they will have; “there’s a window of opportunity, and then development slows or stops.”
Hindsight is a wonderful thing. It occurs once we’ve made our mistakes, and we’ve experienced the learning curve. So I thought I’d share a couple of the things I see so clearly now, as we progress on our journey with Kevin who is now a young man of 20.
Yes, therapy is tantamount to success! Thank heavens, no matter how we bemoan the waiting lists, the cost, and what we feel is a lack of service, there is so much more available today than when we entered the system. Information and support is now out there in abundance, a few keystrokes away to any home that owns a computer. But what is success? We took our little boy on a marathon journey of learning. We enrolled him in Thursday’s Child Nursery School. We took parenting courses in behaviour modification. We used Children at Risk, which at the time provided supervision of behavioural programming and I worked with my son, as did a couple of special needs workers. The little boy who screamed and whined constantly in frustration, tantrumed continually, hit and kicked and couldn’t bare to be touched, was stubborn and defiant and who lived in a world that completely separated him from us, made gradual and very slow changes. Then we decided to take him to a doctor who practiced fundamental medicine, to look at his eating and digestive issues and low weight. While we waited for our first appointment he sent us a questionnaire. The first question was, “what are you hoping to achieve?” Such a simple question, but for me it opened the flood gates that culminated in a philosophy for our home, our child and our family.
What I wanted was for my son to experience calm, to reduce his pain, to calm his overactive senses, to be able to exist in his own skin and to have a quality of life and experience joy. By extension I wanted this for every member of the family and I wanted Autism to be a part of our lives and not the driving force. Yes, I wanted to teach my son and continually raise the bar so that he moved towards his potential. Yes, I wanted to feed his mind, and treat him like any other child, with some added supports to accommodate the autistic characteristics, but what I really wanted was to feed his soul. I felt that any child with as many hurdles to jump just to make it through the day and who was being forced to live in a world that really suits us and not him, should absolutely be given a reason to love life.
So, I watched him like a hawk trying to discover what fueled his interest. It really wasn’t hard to figure out that music calmed him. As he rocked to the beat, his body seemed to ease and he beamed in absolute delight. I looked for something to engage Kevin and sought to find things that would also provide entertainment for Raymond, his older brother. It is rarely discussed, but when you add a disability to a family unit, your plan of action has to include every member, and take into consideration how they relate to each other. Raymond chose drumming. Kevin, who couldn’t abide certain noises, who had to be taught to touch his nose with the aid of a mirror, who didn’t cross the midline to pick up a pen with a preferred hand for an eternity and who was clumsy and uncoordinated was about to embark on drum lessons. I found a local music school ( and sat with the two of them for an hour a week. Fate, kismet, a guardian angel, call it whatever fits your beliefs but we were matched with a wonderful young man who was patient, fun, not only didn’t mind Kevin’s rote scripting of movies, but joined in. He willingly turned to me and asked for teaching suggestions. He accommodated the diagnosis, and expected Kevin to learn like any other student. The boys loved it.
Kevin has been playing drums for over a decade. He now has barely any noise sensitivities and he’s able to count out music at incredible speed. He is well coordinated while playing and continually improves. He reads music at a university level and most importantly he loves it. He looks forward to his lesson, is thrilled to see his teacher and has a face bathed in bliss as he plays along to the music, confident and proud. The brothers share a common enjoyment and this feeds their mutual love of music. One of the best gifts Kevin ever received was a website made by his brother. It contains all the music videos Kevin loves and the commercials that send him into fits of laughter. I’m sure Raymond thought he was just creating a gift that his brother would enjoy. I saw it as an example of a brother’s love. He took the time to create something that was perfectly suited for a differently abled sibling and one that fed into the interests they shared and a place they connected.
In a similar fashion, we have long used the services of the most incredible, out of the box thinking speech therapist. This wonderful lady forged an amazing bond with both Kevin and our family. She taught Kevin to draw and paired that skill with language (
Once Kevin began to draw he didn’t stop. When he picks up a pen, his face relaxes, he becomes spellbound and competent. His art is his love and is pervasive in his life, almost like a visual dictionary that he uses to order, understand, and relay his life. I am very grateful for a way to communicate with my son and him to me. When a situation arises that I need to explain or prepare him for, I pick up a pen and draw a comic strip. When I need to understand him, I will draw a picture and ask him to finish it. He shows me in pictures what any other child would describe in a conversation.
Kevin ticked all the boxes on the Autism diagnosis criteria save one, he didn’t spin objects. He was loved and challenging, big time. It has been a long, gradual journey. Kevin could not speak, tolerate sounds, touch, textures and taste.  He was distant and isolated, screamed and hit and lived in constant frustration. He was in pain often, slept rarely and appeared to be on the edge of a cliff always.
Today Kevin is barely verbal but communicates with us. He is calm, joyful, affectionate and can tolerate anything with a little preparation. He is smart, eager to learn, helpful, and does anything and goes anywhere you would expect of a young man his age. We taught him, fed his mind, helped find and develop his loves to create his joy.
What is success? It is ongoing and our journey continues. We still have a long way to go, but success hit me like that initial two by four at diagnosis, albeit with a much different effect, when our family attended Raymond’s university graduation. Success was never thinking for a minute that Kevin wouldn’t be there to share that joy. It was also watching Kevin, gently rocking with a smile pasted on his face as he listened to the quartet play as we waited for the service. He sat quietly through a long, hot service, getting up and cheering beside us as Raymond walked the stage. Raymond caught sight of us and sent a special wave specifically for the brother he is connected to. We were a family sharing a day of pride and meaning, where Autism was present but not the driving force.
So as you embark on a journey that will push you to your limits, my suggestion is, as you race to do all the things you can for your child, take a moment to relax and consider; how will you feed the joy?

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Untangling the "Why?"

Probably the most common questions I've fielded over my years working with individuals on the autism spectrum all start with the same word: "Why ... ?"

Why is he doing that?
Why doesn't he look at me?
Why did she run away?
Why did he melt down?

Some autism professionals will tell you that all of the information you need to know (to answer your question) can be found by observing the person's behaviour in the environment where it occurs. I would agree that this can be a good place to start (especially if the person is non-verbal) because you get some clues about what might have gone wrong, what might have irritated, upset or overwhelmed that person. But it's just a starting point.

Many human actions and reactions are more complex than "if this, then that" - they are driven by thoughts, feelings, perception, understanding - to figure them out, you will need to find a way to ask the ASD person what the situation looked like from their perspective and you will also need to listen to, respect and act on the answer you get.

So, a few personal stories to illustrate:

First, a story that I've mentioned previously in this blog. When Adam was in elementary school, a social goal was written into his IEP (Individual Education Plan) stating that he would learn to say "hi" to other students in the hallway. From the start, Adam was clearly (and observably) upset by this program. So, I drew a picture to "ask" him what was wrong - here's what he drew:

#1 is my picture "question" to Adam - pictures #2-4 are his "answer"

Picture #3 was the most compelling for me - Adam is inside the locker, hiding from the horrible smiling greeting girl (visible in pieces through the locker vents), his distress and upset clear for anyone to see (no lack of emotion on his part). While we still didn't know "why" it was so awful for him, there was no doubt that it was, so the "greeting program" was scrapped.

Respect for his perspective. In retrospect, my guess is that he was not able to process faces and voices very well at that point in time, so he couldn't really tell who was talking to him (or why they would be). When he got to high school, he seemed to suddenly be more comfortable with other people and started to spontaneously greet them and call them by name - because they were the same height as him? because his neurology had developed to the point the he could distinguish one person's face/voice from another? because life in general was more comprehensible to him? - maybe one or all of these reasons (or something else entirely). Interesting, but not as important as listening to him and respecting the fact that a program meant to be helpful was actually not.

Second story, also from elementary school, involves a different young boy with a diagnosis of Asperger's Syndrome. We had been doing a lot of visual work to help him figure out social dynamics on the playground (an environment that was full of conflict and distress for him). Suddenly, his EA (Educational Assistant) made a worrisome observation - the boy's eyes were rolling up in his head when he was out on the playground with his peers. Some of you may have jumped to the same conclusion that we did - fearing he was starting to have seizures, we discussed a referral to the pediatric neurologist. But just before we did that paperwork, I realized we hadn't really asked him what those incidents were like from his perspective.

So, I drew him a visual "question" (although this boy was verbal, his language often failed him when he was trying to discuss more abstract or emotional topics). The question looked something like this:

I asked him to fill in the thought bubble, and this is what he wrote: "I don't want them to read my mind". Interesting. We had been having a lot of discussions about the "invisible" social cues (facial expression, tone of voice, body language) and about how eye contact was important because it let you "read" these social cues and make guesses about what another person was thinking (to help navigate a social situation more successfully). This boy was very intelligent. He decided he wasn't all that comfortable with having other people know what he was thinking, so he purposely denied them eye contact to prevent them from reading his mind. A logical and reasonable conclusion based on the information he had been given.

So, we had a new discussion about the difference between guessing and knowing, and the fact that the other kids couldn't actually read his mind. Once he felt reassured that his thoughts were still private and it was his choice which ones he wanted to make public, the eye rolling stopped immediately, and the neurology referral was no longer necessary.

Not a "why" that could be figured out in any other way than by asking the person doing the behaviour.

Third and last story. This one is about another beautiful and sensitive young boy with a diagnosis of autism, preschool age, who suddenly seemed to go backward in his toilet training. It turned out that he was fearful of the noise made by the public bathroom hand-dryers and his fear quickly extended to all toilets. A psychologist suggested to the mom that she make the boy go into the public bathroom (drag him, I guess), stand him under the dryer and repeatedly turn it on until his "avoidance" response was extinguished. The mom didn't think this sounded like a good idea, so she asked me for a second opinion. I strongly backed up her intuition that this was a very bad idea.

Observation showed that the boy was terrified by the hand dryer noise, although he couldn't articulate "why". Parental common sense says that you protect your child from fearful situations, rather than purposely exposing them to scary and overwhelming situations (because that's abusive).

Here's what we did instead. I made him a tape of sounds - ones he liked (like my piano) and ones he didn't (like the hair dryer). Then I let him be the boss of the tape machine (this was a while ago, it was a cassette tape). He controlled the on/off, the volume, which ones we played and which ones we didn't. Very interesting because he would choose to listen to the "fearful" sounds in this context, very softly to be sure, but he seemed to want to figure them out.

At the same time, we got him some "over the ear" noise protection headphones from the hardware store, and he wore these many places outside of his house to control his personal noise intake. I can still clearly picture the day he arrived at my house with a determined look on his face, headphones in hand and announced: "Sheila, get the broom ... we're setting off the fire alarm!" ... and we did ... and then he asked me to get the hairdryer so he could turn it on and off while cautiously lifting up one cup of his headphones. A very brave boy, facing his fears on his terms.

What was important here? Listening to his perspective. Giving him respect for the magnitude of his fearful response to certain sounds. Giving him control over that scary part of his everyday environment. Giving him strategies to manage the overwhelming cacophony of the larger world.

And here's the most interesting part. The "why" of his reaction, which was revealed as he grew older. This boy is a musical genius. His auditory system is so fine-tuned that he can play back multi-part harmony after hearing a musical piece only once. His auditory processing is far too exquisite for the yammering jack-hammer nature of our mundane world, and that's why he was overwhelmed by everyday noises when he was a little boy. As a grown-up, he is an accomplished musician with a rare talent. Beautiful boy indeed.

WHY is the most common question, and also the most important question.
Always seek out the perspective of the person on the autism spectrum. Respect the answer that you get, even if it's not convenient or the answer you hoped for. Bend the world to accommodate the ASD person, smooth the rough edges, make things comprehensible, give them control and the power to choose what they want and don't want, what they will or won't do. Respect them as independent intelligent human beings who may not want to comply with your arbitrary demands, but so what?
Defiance tends to lead to more interesting and unusual places than compliance anyway.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Michael's Father's Day Gift

Here's a story that Michael's mom sent me via e-mail yesterday. Michael wrote it for his dad, and with the family's kind permission, I am sharing the story with all of you:

First, an introduction by Michael's mom:

"Soon, he will have enough stories for a book. About six months ago Michael threw out an important wire and (his dad) was very upset, but there's been no talk of it since. How thoughtful of Michael to want to replace that wire ;-)"

And now, Michael's Father's Day e-mail to his dad:

"Dear, Dad,

I made a note for you for Father's day. I hope you like this.

Love your favorite son, Michael

It was Father's Day on Sunday, & Michael wanted something really special for his father. "Hmmm," said Michael. "I wonder what should I give my dad?" He decided if he wants a new wire for dad's radio. He looked at The Canada Computers Store for help. He looked & looked & looked & looked but the wire wasn't there. "Aw, tarter sauce!" cried Michael. "The wire is gone!" He went inside Future Shop & he finally found the wire in the wire box. He paid for it & puts it in his pocket & took it home. "I like my new present," said his father. "Awww, it was nothing," said Michael. "I promise never to throw the wire away again." His father doesn't really like the pink wire. He likes the black wire."

And a final comment from Michael's mom:

"In this story, we realized that the reason Michael threw out the wire was because it was pink.

Love how these stories give us insight into why Michael does what he does."

A beautiful illustration of the importance of opening alternate communication channels in autism, so that ASD individuals can express the reasoning behind the actions that can sometimes get them into trouble ... and there's always a reason.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Happy Father's Day 2013!

It's Father's Day today, and I'd like to share some pictures that express the love of two sons for their dads:

First, from Adam. As you will know if you have been following this blog, Adam is a young adult with autism who has limited verbal language. He expresses his more complex and detailed thoughts through his drawing. The following pictures were drawn in 2001, after he took a trip to Disney + with his dad. You'll see that in Adam's world, "Dad = Fun":

Adam and Dad head off on the airplane to begin their adventure
They can't wait to get to Disney

They also go to Epcott and MGM

Of course, no trip is complete without a stop at McDonalds

It's clear that Adam connects his dad with good times

Second, from Kevin. He is also a young adult with autism who has limited verbal language and uses drawing to communicate. His favourite drawing subjects are Mr. Bean, Teddy and his dad, mom and brother. Here are a couple of pictures of Dad from recent months:

Music is one of Kevin's favourite things, so he puts that together with Dad (one of his favourite guys)

Here's Dad keeping himself fit

... and here's Dad admiring Kevin's artistic talent (he is one of Kev's biggest fans)

When you're the dad of a non-verbal person, they may not be able to tell in conventional ways how much you mean to them ... but if you expand your view, you may be able to see the subtle and unique ways they are trying to say "Dad, you're the best - I see all the things you do for me and I love you for it".
Happy Father's Day to all the dads out there!!!

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Drawing out Emotion in Autism

The other day I was asked this question:
Do people with autism understand love? How about emotions in general?

And this was my answer:
Yes – I’m actually just in the process of writing a blog post about this topic. It is a common misconception that people with autism lack emotion. In fact, they tend to have very strong emotions that can overwhelm them. Often emotions are not well categorized and sorted, and one of the important things to address in intervention is understanding, sorting , naming of emotions, as well as defining degrees of emotion – this helps the person deal with their own emotional responses (and those of others) in a better way.

Emotions can be hard:
..... especially if: when you feel like this inside .....

.... THIS is the only answer that comes out when someone asks: "How are you?"

Note to all parents, teachers & therapists: PLEASE do not teach a child to automatically answer "I am fine" to this common question (this response is incredibly difficult to un-teach, and results in sick/injured/hurt/distressed people telling you they are just "find")

Think of a time in your life when your emotions overwhelmed you - when events in your life were so "big", so unmanageable, so unfathomable that you were swept away by a tide of emotion that rendered you speechless, thoughtless, disorganized and discombobulated - perhaps to the point that a pathetic word like "sad" or "angry" or "scared" just wouldn't begin to encompass the experience. I really want you to clearly recall this time and state before you read any more .... ready?

This is often what emotion is like for those on the autism spectrum. Not too little feeling, but far too much. With no automatic system kicking in to name and sort and process, every feeling can become overwhelming - a "happy" surprise can lead to a meltdown just as easily as a negative or sad experience.

Emotional education is important, but it's challenging to directly teach a subject that is not usually taught - if you're a "Nypical" (love this term from John Elder Robison), you may think of yourself as very skilled in this area, but it's all automatic processing for you, so you don't actually know how you know what you know (if you know what I mean), and you probably won't be as good at explaining and teaching it as you think.

Drawing is a great way to approach the direct teaching of visual cues that connect to emotion:

Here is a quick overview of the small drawn figures I use to teach body language and facial expression:
With a few simple lines, you can "explain" the visual cues of emotion much more effectively than you can with verbal language (in this instance, a picture really is worth a thousand+ words).

This type of teaching results in a gradual learning process - the skills involved in seeing, processing, integrating and understanding the transitory subtle visual cues that code human emotion are incredibly complex, but they are teachable.

Kevin and Adam are both low verbal adults on the autism spectrum, and they have been learning about people and emotions for many years now. See some of their recent drawings:

Happiness for Mr. Bean is a trip to the condo.

Being "shushed" makes Adam feel a bit sad and uncertain.

Sadness for Kevin is an unexpected closure of a favourite store.

Adam draws the unhappy shock of a boy blown back by a lion's roar.

Raymond (Kevin's brother) is excited about graduating from university.

Loving bond between a seal pair.

Dad shows the universal reaction to computer malfunctions.

Being able to freeze one moment in time, through drawing, allows it to be examined and understood. And recently, the beautifully simple drawing animation programs on the iPad have the extra benefit of letting us put these transient emotional moments in the context of a visual timeline:

Understanding and taming emotions is a critical step in developing self-confidence and self-control ... and art is a powerful way to reach and teach when human emotion is the topic.
Pick up a pen and give it a try!
Video drawn by Adam on the iPad using FlipBoom Cartoon