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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!