Thursday, April 21, 2011

Asperger's Syndrome

While John was in the hospital several weeks ago, he was diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome in addition to the Bipolar diagnosis he's had for years. Those two words have been a Godsend to me. Being as I was trained as a special educator, I knew what those words meant immediately. They explained so many of the quirks that Bipolar didn't exactly encompass. It meant he really didn't get it (whatever the particular it of the day was) even though I'd explained it a million times. It meant I hadn't failed as a mother or a teacher and that he wasn't being disobedient in the ways I had presumed. It was a big moment for me and it changed so much about our relationship without ever changing anything about John.

Immediately, my school teacher mode kicked in and I went to work. Unfortunately, I kind of left a few people in the dust as I ran ahead. I think some of them understood some of why I was relieved but didn't quite understand why I was so different in my interactions with John as well as my greatly increased hope. (And my new busy infatuation with scheduling.)

At one point, a dear friend who also has a newly diagnosed Aspie, questioned me, "How do I know when he's being disobedient and when he's doing something due to Asperger's?" I tried my best in the moment but I think my attempt at helping her understand fell flat.

Two weeks later, my husband asked nearly the same question. But I'd been mulling it over for a while and realized the problem wasn't my answer but that the question was leading us all in the wrong direction.

You see, you will never be able to separate what is Asperger's and what is the individual child. The truth is that whatever is inappropriate behavior, is simply inappropriate behavior. It needs to change into an appropriate behavior. The diagnosis helps me to understand that the way I've been trying to train my son on appropriate behavior was never going to work. I could consequence till the cows come home (trust me, they had been mooing loudly and milling around my kitchen for years). Dealing with him as one would expect to deal with most children doesn't work.

I think, at first, my husband felt like I was excusing a lot of John's behaviors. No, just because I stopped yelling, scolding, removing privileges and sending him to his room, doesn't mean I was choosing to let him get away with it.

Since I've known John, I've seen the same pattern repeat. He makes a simple, normal mistake. (Or sometimes not so normal, but seemingly innocent enough). I then try to correct or steer him in the right direction and he then PANICS. He reacts in such bizarre and over the top ways, breaking 15 other rules and endangering himself and those around him in the process.

Nowadays, I tend to notice a problem area and think, "Hmm, he doesn't get this. I need to find a way to teach it to him." So I do what I can to calm him down. Or just wait out what is going on. Or simply non-emotionally try to explain it in the frankest and most simple of terms. He's a smart boy. He grasps certain things so easily and it was frustrating before because one had to assume he was not doing what other children naturally do on purpose. I mean, at least have the decency to act sheepish when I catch you in the act. Maybe, sometimes, it was on purpose. Either way, he needs to be taught an appropriate behavior instead.

Since his diagnosis, I've worked on his panicking and running out of the room when I say something he doesn't like. Fifteen times one afternoon, I walked calmly to wherever he ran and silently and gently and strongly took his hand. I pulled him back to where we had been talking and said, "It is rude to run away when someone is talking." Then I continued where I had been interrupted.

The fifteenth time (after doing this his entire life and my punishing him repeatedly and explaining) he took three panicked steps away and came immediately back. He said, "Running away is rude." I smiled and continued whatever it was. Whenever he runs away I repeat the process. Never again has it taken 15 times in a day and most days it doesn't even happen anymore but sometimes it does. He does, after all, have a lifetime of the habit and still suffers a great deal of anxiety.

In special education, there is a concept called remediation and accommodation. Remediation says you work on the parts where there are deficits. If they are behind in math, you go to the highest level they have mastered and work to help them develop new skills. You don't get angry because they are in fifth grade and haven't yet mastered simply addition, you just keep working at whatever pace is necessary to help them continue to move forward. In the meantime you offer accommodation. For a child who cannot walk, you offer a wheel chair, walker or crutches while you may still offer physical therapy to help them support their body weight on their legs, and so on. In John's case, remediation comes in the form of explaining what behaviors are unacceptable and showing what to do instead. And accommodation comes in the form of making his environment as predictable and safe to him as possible.

Now, a rigid schedule and very explicit rules are frequently preferred by children with Asperger's Syndrome, but it is obvious that you don't want to always give into that inflexibility and need for routine because they will never be able to handle any changes. So it is a balancing act. You hold as many things as possible in a predictable manner while you make small incremental changes. He feels safer and less anxious and many of the behavior issues are lessened just for that fact.

In the meantime, when I notice something is not right, I try to find out the reason. Because John thinks so differently than myself and most people, I'm usually surprised to find out why he's doing something. He was tilting his head back and forth in a sneering, disrespectful manner when I said something he didn't like. It was very easy to assume he was just being rude and nasty.

But he probably saw a teenager in real life or on TV and saw it as the way you respond when someone says something you don't like. He was executing it perfectly and in the right context but had no idea of the meaning behind his actions. And when I got angry at him, it bothered him and made him panic and usually run away. Suddenly, it dawned on me one afternoon. "John," I said in my non-judgmental, teacher voice, "tilting your head back and forth like that is just as rude as sticking your tongue out at someone." He looked shocked and then regretful. Sincerely and sweetly he responded, "I wasn't meaning to be rude, Mom." I told him I knew that now and thought I should explain that it wasn't appropriate. We are still working on polite ways to show you disagree with what someone is saying.

I'll probably have more examples to share as John and I continue to learn how to communicate with one another and I try to help him navigate the social world that eludes him so. For now, I hope that this might help some of you see a new way to interact with children on the Spectrum.
And maybe have a little sympathy for that mom who has a stressed out kiddo and is choosing to deal with that behavior in a way that will change it for life as opposed to "making" them apologize to the kid they threw sand at or whatever consequence seems appropriate to our experience with neuro-typical children. In fact, maybe those kids could use the same kind of teaching rather than punishing consideration.

I'm having to rethink all sorts of things these days.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Emergency Mail

You may recall Hannah's roller coaster experience with the U.S. Postal Service. You can read about it here and here. She has remained utterly fascinated with the magical silver box that brings good tidings of great joy.

Today, as on many days, she doodled across several pages and stuffed them in an envelope. She's been working on writing names and wrote completely unassisted "Hannah" and "Audrey" to indicate the letter was intended for her cousin. She slapped a huge Tinker Bell sticker (from her dental visit the other day) in the upper right corner. Then she asked if she could put it in the mailbox.

I agreed and she skipped out to the garage while John and I completed math. Breathlessly, a few minutes later she ran back into the house. "Mom! We have a problem! The mail lady turned off her car. She wants to help me but she doesn't have the number it goes to."

Wow, that girl has quite an imagination, I thought. Nevertheless, I stood up and peered at the end of the driveway. There sat the car with a flashing yellow light on top.

OH NO! Well, I couldn't let Hannah down. I slapped a tiny looking address with what I hope is the correct zip code under the enormous "AUDREY" and a return address in the proper place. I put a stamp on the corner and gave her the envelope.

She ran back out and handed her envelope to the carrier. The woman smiled and said, "Alright! Now I think I can help you. It has a stamp and I know where to take this."

I stepped out the front door and called a thank you to her. And she waved and grinned and said, "Don't worry, we'll take care of her!"

I LOVE the U.S. Postal Service and that sweet lady who sat during her busy and demanding schedule and waited for five minutes to make a little girl's whole day.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

A friendly letter?

Today's writing assignment was to write a friendly letter. Specifically, this letter was to ask one family member for a gift for another family member. The student was to detail why the recipient was deserving of said gift.

Here is John's letter. He seems not to have lost his touch since the tales of Thunderblot.


Dear Grandma Missy,

I'm asking for money for comic books for Uncle Ben because I missed his birthday. I would love to do it myself but I don't have any money.

He can't buy it himself because Aunt Stefi took all his money. He needs to get out of the house a little while. There's a new comic book he really wants. I am asking you because I trust you better than anyone else.


Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Life Lessons at the Learning Lab

Here, at Laughner Learning Labs, we believe in tailoring an educational experience to the unique cognitive and developmental needs of each student. We are willing to work with any age student, espousing a wholehearted commitment to the full spectrum of life-long learning.

Student Profile: COTE LAUGHNER

Cote is a lovely, inquisitive child (Age: 14.5 months) who has recently demonstrated a keen interest in art. She has been given access to appropriate art supplies and the freedom to create without criticism. Her art seems to be broadening in scope both cognitively and physically as she acquaints herself more fully with the medium. Her instruction also includes proper usage of tools and care of one's personal workspace.

Photographs are shared below from a lesson when Miss Laughner learned that markers are only to be used while standing properly at the easel. These are rare educational insights directly from our lab. They are realistic depictions of the learning experience, which certainly isn't always easy. Prepare yourself. These photos may be too graphic for sensitive viewers. Rest assured, in the end, Miss Laughner successfully learns her lesson and blooms creatively and artistically while submitting to the rigorous standards of her elite learning environment.

Student is given instruction to leave markers at the easel station for the fourth time.

Student looks in anxious denial to classmate for support.

Student demonstrates sudden awareness of the instructor's commitment to proper marker storage.

Student experiences momentary crisis of faith in her ability to meet the standard.

Student resigns herself to compliance with a tear in her eye.

Student has demonstrated responsibility and is happily back to work contributing to a growing body of valuable artistic expression from the students at Laughner Learning Labs.

Now accepting applications.