Sunday, November 13, 2011

Limitations of self...

I’m stealing this week, because someone has already said what I want to say, in a way that makes it crystal clear.
My class is exhausting – physically, mentally and emotionally. It’s hard work. But working with the children, as challenging as it is, isn’t my biggest challenge.

For me, the biggest challenge is working with other adults. This is a challenge for a multitude of reasons, as few of the major ones being:

a)    I am anal-retentive and a micromanager.  I want things done a certain way and I’d rather do things myself than have them done without the same attention to detail I know I would give. For this reason, I am bad a delegating.

b)    I’m not great at small talk with people I’m not close to. I’m actually quite shy and I rarely volunteer information about myself or my activities, especially if they don’t pertain directly to the setting or situation.  I’ve learned that this causes people to perceive me as snobby, which I feel terrible about.

c)    I often “fly by the seat of my pants”, for lack of a better description, which makes it hard for other people to help me.  Everything I’m planning is written down only in my head, so it’s just easier for me to do it myself.  It’s not that I’m trying to be a martyr, it’s just that it would take twice as long for me to explain it to someone as it would for me to just do it.

d)    I am emotionally tied to pretty much everything that I do. I do things that I enjoy and that I am passionate about, which is good in many ways.  Where it becomes hard however, is that I tend to shut down when faced with people who undermining what I do through ignorance.

This last point is key when it come to my classroom and my job. It’s been a rough week, so let me perfectly clear: I did not take this position to show off, to get attention, or as a stepping stone to somewhere in particular. I took it because I thought I could make a difference for my kids. Period.

The widely recognizable symbol for Autism awareness is a puzzle piece, and that’s exactly how I would describe my kids. They are puzzles – wonderful, amazing kids, whose communication and sensory abilities differ from the typical.  The suggestion that my students will never accomplish anything meaningful because of their autism sends me into a fire-breathing, black-as-night, impossible to banish rage, that despite my best efforts, I will likely hold against someone for a terrifically long time. As far as I’m concerned, if you’re not here to help them reach their potential, and if you already think you know what that potential is, get out of my classroom. Seriously. Because if that’s what you think, you don’t deserve to work with these kids.

They are KIDS. 10 years old. My youngest is 5.  And if you’ve already put a limit on what they’re going to be able to accomplish in their lifetime, you need to give your head a shake. Or maybe something stronger.  You have no idea how much they can do. How much they understand.  They are puzzles! Non-verbal doesn’t mean they don’t understand. It means they’re not talking to communicate.  That’s it. Don’t believe me? Watch this story about Carly:

There are stories just like Carly’s all over. Kids (and adults!) with autism have thoughts, feelings, ideas and comprehension far beyond what any of us can know or measure. So please, educate yourself.  Imagine my students were one of your children.  What would you want for them?  What kinds of beliefs about them would you want their teachers to have? Me, too...

So here’s what I’ve stolen – an amazing list by Ellen Notbohm, and author and mother of a child with autism. She’s also expanded this list, originally a magazine article, into a whole book, and also has a how-to type book for parents and professionals. I’ve edited the descriptions to get at the main points for space purposes, but if you’re interested, the online article and links to her books can be found here:  I love this, and I’m planning on posting it outside my classroom door with a note that says: PLEASE READ BEFORE ENTERING.


Here are ten things every child with autism wishes you knew:

1. I am first and foremost a child -- a child with autism. I am not primarily “autistic.” My autism is only one aspect of my total character. It does not define me as a person. Are you a person with thoughts, feelings and many talents, or are you just fat (overweight), myopic (wear glasses) or klutzy (uncoordinated, not good at sports)?

As an adult, you have some control over how you define yourself. If you want to single out a single characteristic, you can make that known. As a child, I am still unfolding. Neither you nor I yet know what I may be capable of. Defining me by one characteristic runs the danger of setting up an expectation that may be too low. And if I get a sense that you don’t think I “can do it,” my natural response will be: Why try?

2. My sensory perceptions are disordered. This means that the ordinary sights, sounds, smells, tastes and touches of everyday that you may not even notice can be downright painful for me. The very environment in which I have to live often seems hostile. I may appear withdrawn or belligerent to you but I am really just trying to defend myself.

3. Please remember to distinguish between won’t (I choose not to) and can’t (I am not able to).

It isn’t that I don’t listen to instructions. It’s that I can’t understand you. When you call to me from across the room, this is what I hear: “*&^%$#@, Billy. #$%^*&^%$&*………” Instead, come speak directly to me in plain words: “Please put your book in your desk, Billy. It’s time to go to lunch.” This tells me what you want me to do and what is going to happen next. Now it is much easier for me to comply.

4. I am a concrete thinker. This means I interpret language very literally. It’s very confusing for me when you say, “Hold your horses, cowboy!” when what you really mean is “Please stop running.” Don’t tell me something is a “piece of cake” when there is no dessert in sight and what you really mean is “this will be easy for you to do.” When you say “It’s pouring cats and dogs,” I see pets coming out of a pitcher. Please just tell me “It’s raining very hard.”  Idioms, puns, nuances, double entendres and sarcasm are lost on me.

5. Please be patient with my limited vocabulary. It’s hard for me to tell you what I need when I don’t know the words to describe my feelings. I may be hungry, frustrated, frightened or confused but right now those words are beyond my ability to express. Be alert for body language, withdrawal, agitation or other signs that something is wrong.

Or, there’s a flip side to this: I may sound like a “little professor” or movie star, rattling off words or whole scripts well beyond my developmental age. These are messages I have memorized from the world around me to compensate for my language deficits because I know I am expected to respond when spoken to. They may come from books, TV, the speech of other people. It is called “echolalia.” I don’t necessarily understand the context or the terminology I’m using. I just know that it gets me off the hook for coming up with a reply.

6. Because language is so difficult for me, I am very visually oriented. Please show me how to do something rather than just telling me. And please be prepared to show me many times. Lots of consistent repetition helps me learn.

7. Please focus and build on what I can do rather than what I can’t do. Like any other human, I can’t learn in an environment where I’m constantly made to feel that I’m not good enough and that I need “fixing.” Trying anything new when I am almost sure to be met with criticism, however “constructive,” becomes something to be avoided. Look for my strengths and you will find them. There is more than one “right” way to do most things.

8. Please help me with social interactions. It may look like I don’t want to play with the other kids on the playground, but sometimes it’s just that I simply do not know how to start a conversation or enter a play situation.

9. Try to identify what triggers my meltdowns. Meltdowns, blow-ups, tantrums or whatever you want to call them are even more horrid for me than they are for you. They occur because one or more of my senses has gone into overload. If you can figure out why my meltdowns occur, they can be prevented

10. If you are a family member, please love me unconditionally. Banish thoughts like, “If he would just……” and “Why can’t she…..” I did not choose to have autism. But remember that it is happening to me, not you. Without your support, my chances of successful, self-reliant adulthood are slim. With your support and guidance, the possibilities are broader than you might think. I promise you – I am worth it.

And finally, three words: Patience. Patience. Patience. Work to view my autism as a different ability rather than a disability. Look past what you may see as limitations and see the gifts autism has given me. It may be true that I’m not good at eye contact or conversation, but have you noticed that I don’t lie, cheat at games, tattle on my classmates or pass judgment on other people

All that I might become won’t happen without you as my foundation. Think through some of those societal ‘rules’ and if they don’t make sense for me, let them go. Be my advocate, be my friend, and we’ll see just how far I can go.


‘Nuf said...

Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Snoezelen... I mean... Sensory... I mean... Quiet Room

“A room by any other name would be as wickedly cool...”
That’s how the saying goes, right?

For those that need some context, here goes...

In February of last year, I asked my principal to assign me to my class, as a second choice to the library.  I had been contemplating a move to middle school (for a variety of reasons which serve no purpose in this story), and my principal was very concerned about assigning me to the library if I was just going to leave.  I had been doing library for three years, which I loved, but I was willing to give it up, and part of me was eager to have my own kids again.  I loved my previous experience in Special Ed, and I thought it would be a great learning experience to try my hand at the ASD class, if I couldn’t have my library.  When she actually did give me the class, I immediately started plotting, planning, scheming and dreaming, and by the time postings came out, I didn’t apply for a single one... I was too excited about my new assignment to think about leaving!

The sad little ALE as it was...
As an occasional visitor to the classroom I was going to occupy, I knew the layout of the room pretty well, and had always been driven crazy by what I perceived to be a an incredibly under-developed corner of the room, literally. About two years ago, the board had installed, at great expense, what they call an ALE (alternative learning environment) in one corner of the classroom. It was basically a 6x8 room with nothing in it. I’m not kidding.  The following year, they spent even more money to have it padded, from the floor to about 6” up on all four walls. Yup... you know the joke about the padded room? Well, that’s what we had.  A padded room, with a couple of beanbag chairs and a yoga ball. I know at one point, there was a student that used to get quite aggressive, and the room was presumably there as a safe space for him if needed. I’m not going to pretend to guess its usefulness, since it wasn’t my classroom.  Suffice to say, it definitely wasn’t living up to what it could be, at least in my eyes.

By March, I had already begun thinking about turning that little room into something more.  I honestly don’t know what put the idea into my head, but I was reading everything I could get my hands on about Snoezelen rooms, and had convinced myself that this was exactly what I needed for my students. It sounded magical to me, although I had never even seen one... Sparkling lights, bubbles, soothing music and special effects, mirror balls, vibrating cloud cushions... close your eyes and picture that... I know, right?! That’s what I wanted. I babbled excitedly to my principal, who agreed that it would be great... in theory. How exactly we were going to pull it off was an entirely different matter, and one that neither of us had figured out.

As the months went by, the Snoezelen idea simmered.  I told friends about what I wanted to do, I kept reading, and searched the web looking for ideas about how to do it “on the cheap”.  At the very least, I knew I wanted music in there, so I purchased a Sony stereo with the last of the class’s budget money and asked my principal if we could install a shelf to put it on. No problem, she says. Turns out, she was wrong. It was a big problem. First of all, my custodian wasn’t allowed to install one for me, because it was to go above the mats, which is above shoulder height, and anything above shoulder height has to be installed by a facilities person from the central office. Remember that little tidbit, because it’s about to get old...

Secondly, there was great debate between facilities and the Special Ed department and the Health and Safety department over whether I was allowed to install a shelf in there at all. The kids might hang on it, climb on it, throw something on it...etc.  I assured them that the children would never be in the room unsupervised, that there would be nothing to climb ON, and that nothing hard would be brought into the room that could be thrown. They then decided that I could have the shelf, but that it had to be ordered and installed centrally.  I measured the dimensions. Twice. In April, we put in a work order for the shelf, and I heaved a sigh of relief.  I didn’t have anything by a stereo yet, but at least I would have a shelf for it.

In May, I was paid a visit in my library office by the electrical safety inspector, as he was touring the school with our custodian.  “Oh, you’re the one that wants to put in one of those sensory rooms, eh?” My reputation, such as it was, was apparently preceding me. “Make sure you’re careful about what you put in there, eh? I’ve seen a lot of schools do these rooms and we have to make them take it all down if it’s not safe.  No Christmas lights hanging from the ceiling and stuff...” So much for all the great “on the cheap” ideas.

I laughed and shrugged him off with “Oh, well, it’s just a plan. Right now the only thing I have for it is a stereo!” Ha, ha... (insert forced smile) 

Him: “Oh yah? It’s certified, right?”

Me: “You mean, like, CSA approved? Of course, it’s a Sony...” Ha, ha... (insert forced smile)

Him: “CSA or blah, blah, blah...” – something technical that I didn’t hear as panic set in. “Lemme see it.”

I (mostly) confidently dug out my stereo from its packaging and displayed the approval sticker for him. Satisfied, he wished me a nice day and reminded me to be careful with anything else I put in the room, and left me grinding my teeth and wondering what do to next.

I had been toying with the idea of a fundraiser of some kind for awhile, but this little encounter really made me realize that if I wanted this room, I was going to have to go big or go home, as they say. Anyone who knows me knows what came next. 

I started by calling the official Canadian distributor of Snoezelen equipment, Flaghouse.  Turns out “Snoezelen” is kind of a brand name for a set of equipment and the philosophy/approach that goes with it.  To be honest, I called them to ask if they had any kind of deal or sponsorship program that a school like ours could access. No such luck.  They were, however, incredibly kind and helpful, and passed along to me a whole package about the rooms, a framework for a grant proposal, and a list of possible funding sources.  I called them back several days later, and told them although I had no money yet, I was planning on getting some, and would they please do up a room design and price list for me that I could show to potential donors? They absolutely could, and that was the end of the beginning.

Two weeks later, with the gracious participation of The Essentials secured, I began to plan a benefit concert and silent auction for the end of June, only a month away.  I designed posters, printed tickets, and got my hand slapped by the board, all in the same week.  “You can’t call it a Snoezelen Room”, I was told.  “Schools have gotten into trouble for that – Snoezelen is a brand name.” They didn’t seem to care that it WAS a Snoezelen room, designed by the company that owned the Canadian rights to the name. They wanted the posters changed. I changed them. The 10 of them I sent to the board, that is. And the 4 that were up around the school. The rest of them, plastered across the web and the school community, stayed the way they were.  No one noticed.

Meanwhile, I sent out a plea to friends, family and acquaintances for their help with the event. To say I was overwhelmed by the support I received would be an understatement...

Silent auction items flooded in, local media graciously picked up our story, and a “what-the-heck” email to the CBC got me live on Metro Morning. One kind Torontonian who heard me on the program emailed me and sent a cheque for $200, saying he was moved by the story and wanted to help. Flaghouse agreed to send a rep with equipment out to the event, so that people could see what they were supporting. 

Ticket sales were slow, but on the night of the event, people showed up, and the event ended up raising close to $4000. School ended, but cheques kept trickling in... People who couldn’t attend donated anyway. Other friends in education told their friends about what I was trying to do, and took up a collection at their school.  I spent 2 whole days at the beginning of the summer writing requests to a slew of possible funding organizations, local service clubs and non-profits. Friends sent links they had heard about, and I learned a big lesson about how funding works (or doesn’t) when you’re a public school trying to work outside the box.

In August, I met with the local Rotary chapter, where I ended up sitting across from a gentleman who questioned me gruffly about why I “would want to teach a class like that. That’s hard work.” I explained to him that although I was expecting hard work, I also loved teaching special students, because I felt that it really gave me a chance to TEACH, to work with individual students on things that were going to be relevant and beneficial to them. I told him that I felt that the students in my class were entitled to schooling that would meet their needs, and that the room I was trying to build would be a huge part of providing that for them. Turns out he had had a son with autism, who had had terrible school experiences in the very board I teach in. Ouch. When I later spoke to the whole group, he questioned me aloud again and made me repeat my answer in front everyone. I hoped that I was making sense, that I wasn’t babbling, and that I didn’t sound like some dreamy-eyed idealist.  I felt the need to emphasize that I had been teaching a whole decade, and that I wasn’t naive or blind to the realities of teaching. When I had finished, I passed around my room design and equipment list, and sat down back at the end of the table across from said gentleman, not sure how I had done.  As the meeting went on, my materials eventually made their way back to our end of the table, and when they got to him, he asked if he could write on them. I nodded, and then feigned disinterest as he scrawled across the bottom of the page. 

When he handed it back to me, he had written his name, phone number, email. Under that, it said: “$2000. Let me know the name on the cheque.”

As the meeting ended, he asked me to keep the donation private, but to keep him posted on how the room was going.  “Buy that fibre-optic you were talking about,” he said. 

I did. By mid-August, I had calculated there to be almost $7000 in the Sensory Room fund, and I gleefully spent it on the two major items – an interactive bubble tube, and a lighted fibre-optic spray – and a few other smaller items. Flaghouse was going to try and get it all to me before the school year started. My kids were going to have their room.

Yay boxes!
When I arrived back at the school in August, the first thing I noticed was that there was still no shelf in the room.  You know, the one we had ordered in April? Still not there. The last week of August, I arrived to a pile of boxes in my room. Sweet! Except that the light source for the fibre optic wasn’t working, the base for the bubble tube was shipping separately and hadn’t arrived, and I still had no shelf on which to put the stereo or the projector. A second projector and a blacklight were backordered. I couldn’t put the fibre optic up anyway, because it has to go above the mats, which was above shoulder height, which required someone from the board to come in and do it for me. Again. Sigh... Best laid plans. 

The first day of school arrived, and the room was as empty as it had been before, except for the boxes piled in one corner and the empty bubble tube set up in the other. A bubble tube requires about 45 litres of distilled water, FYI. That’s a lot of something that is only easily found in about 4 litre sizes, and even then, hard to track down.

Enjoying the fibre optics
(face blurred to protect student identity)
But it slowly took shape... By the end of the first week, Flaghouse had shipped me a replacement light source, and someone from the board actually came in and put it up. The kids were enchanted. The next week, I had sourced out the distilled water and had the bubble tube up and running. The kids took turns wrapping themselves around it in delight. By the third week of September, someone finally arrived to install our long-awaited shelf, and the room had floating piano and birdsong coming from the newly-housed stereo. Our little Quiet Room, as it was known to the kids, was officially the coolest place in the whole school.

The room is far from done.  We still have about $4000 worth of equipment missing – a mirror ball and spotlight, a vibroacoustic beanbag mattress, a pressure roller and an aromatherapy kit, among other small things. Our blacklight finally arrived. We waited to have it put up (above shoulder height). It went up. I came down again, because the board said it needed a cage over it. Someone else came back and said it should be fine.  A third phone call explained that it was not fine, and could not be put back, as no cage was available.  If we wanted a blacklight, it would have to be ordered through the board. They quoted us at $600.  For a single fluorescent black light. Not gonna happened.  So much for the $100+ we spent on it in the first place.  And the cool UV carpet tiles that were supposed to go with it. The board said Flaghouse should know better, since they design these rooms all the time. They had a point.  When I said as much to the sales rep at Flaghouse, they agreed, and refunded us the money. No questions asked.  They also replaced the light source for the fibre optic. Again. Because the fan has started making this strange whirring sound that it never made before, and they have a 2-year no-hassle policy on everything we bought. Amazing.

Our projector is still on backorder. They had to find a new supplier and are waiting on CSA approval before they can ship it into Canada. Good thing, because then the electrical safety person won’t be able to hassle me next time they come around.

Bubble tube bliss!
(face blurred to protect student identity)
Could I do without the ongoing headaches over the room? Sure.  But let me tell you why it’s worth it.  It’s worth it to see my little guy, who doesn’t play with anything, dart in there to sit pushing to buttons on the bubble tube.  It’s worth it to have a safe haven for my noise-sensitive ones when the room gets a little crazy.  It’s worth it to have my most challenging, usually upset child lying under the fibre-optics quietly, and taking my hand to tell me, in his way, to “do it again”, as I pick up the strands and let them fall gently over his face.  It’s worth it to see my two girls sitting side by side on the bubble tube, giggling and playing with each others’ hair. And it’s worth it to see my busy one, who never sits still, sit beside the bubble tube and lean her ear against it, still as a mouse to listen to the hum and the trickle of the water in motion. 

I’m proud of that little room, of that something concrete that I’ve been able to give my kids. I’m thrilled that they’re responding to it, and using it every day. And sometimes, at the end of the day, when everyone is gone, I plunk myself down on one of the grimy, questionable beanbag chairs, close the door, and just take it all in for a minute or two, and try to remind myself of why I chose this, why it’s worth it and why, no matter what the day has been like, I will get up the next day and do it all over again.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Fateful moments... if you believe in that sort of thing...

Today was, in the words of Grover, a “bad awful day”.  This morning I realized, too late to turn back, that I had forgotten my cellphone at home... Instant panic - dependent, I know, but don’t tell me you don’t panic when you forget your phone, too... Fine.  I didn’t prep a lunch last night, so I have to run out and grab something anyway. I’ll go home for the phone at lunch.  Get to school cranky about the phone, only to realize I’ve also forgotten my school bag – you know, the one with all my papers I cart back and forth, the stuff I had prepped for today’s activities, and oh... ALL of my notes for today’s IEP meeting with a parent at 9:30am. Fantastic... now I’m really cranky, and panicked trying to re-prepare materials for the meeting and the activity planned for the kids to do while I’m in said meeting.

Kids arrive. 2 of them I can hear arriving halfway down the hall.  This is never a good sign. A) long weekend, b) one of my TA’s is away and there’s a supply (a great supply, but nonetheless...) For those that aren’t following this line of awful, kids with ASD generally don’t do well with changes in routine, staff, ect. Recipe for disaster is already in motion.  By noon, all hell has broken loose.  One kid has been screaming all day, another kid bit the first one because they don’t like the noise, a third is in a bad mood and has spent most of the day flopped on the ground and refusing to get up, and my little one is throwing everything he can get his hands on.  *Close eyes, picture my nice quiet library. Wonder if I may actually be clinically insane. Repeat.* I want to walk out the door and not come back. I feel like a horrible teacher, and possibly a terrible person, too.

When the lunch bell rings, I literally escape out the doors, hoping that the room is still standing by the time I get back, and that all of my TA’s will survive the hour. Jump into the car, cursing my own forgetfulness, and head for home.  Consider Subway, thinking something healthy might make me feel better in the long run. Decide to F* that and get McDonald’s. Hit the drive-through, curse the (as usual) terrible speaker system, pay. Pull up to the second window. Am greeted pleasantly by a cheerful young girl who wonders if I want ketchup in the bag, and then stops and looks at me closely.

“Are you Miss *Teacher in 10*?”


“I’m Nikki!” She points at her nametag, which says Nicole.

I suddenly recognize her... a sweetheart little girl from my grade four class in my first year of teaching... 10 years ago.

“Of course? Nikki – hi! How are you?”

“I’m great! Are you still teaching at *school*?”

“I am. And you’re working here now?”

“Yup, for a few years now – I actually just got promoted this week!” she announces proudly.

“That’s great! Are you still in school, too?”

“I am! I’m actually going to be a teacher, too. And I’m taking sign language.  I want to teach Deaf kids, because you taught us sign language in Grade Four!”

I barely heard the rest of the conversation. I was floored. So humbled. I told her how good it was to see her, and to come visit at school sometime, that I’d love to talk to her. And then I pulled away and burst into tears. I cried all the way home.

“I want to teach Deaf kids, because you taught us sign language in Grade Four!”

I used to have a poster of the manual alphabet in my classroom. As part of their science unit on light and sound, I would talk to my fourth graders about the privilege of being able to see and hear, and have them create universal design household items that could be used by someone who was Deaf or Blind. And I would teach them how to fingerspell their names. That’s it.  The kids loved it... They loved to practice their spelling words in fingerspelling. And now here was this girl – this grown-up, university-aged girl, telling me that she was choosing her career based on what I did with her in grade four.

It was like my entire teaching career crystallized in that 30 seconds of conversation. That’s why become teachers – to have meaningful, real impact on the lives of our students. I left for lunch feeling like the worst teacher on the planet, and suddenly, I felt like if I did nothing else in my entire career, it would be enough.  Enough to have inspired that one girl to want to teach Deaf students, because I “taught her sign language in Grade Four.” Enough to be remembered by her, 10 years later, in a random encounter that might never had happened if I had not forgotten my phone, not packed a lunch and not needed junk food after a “bad awful” morning. The highest of highs from the lowest of lows.

Spirit officially refreshed. Tomorrow is another day.  And Nikki’s gift to me will live for the rest of my life in that incredible moment of affirmation that I will never forget.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

An Open Door Means Walk... and other discoveries

One of the things I've discovered in the past three weeks is that while the challenging moments may be long and the joyful moments may be short, their length does not necessarily equal their value.

My youngest little buddy is only 6, and is what we call "a wanderer". He doesn't show any particular interest in anything - his only "affinity", as we call them, is throwing things. Not in anger, he just likes to throw things. Enjoys the sensation of the throw, I suspect from watching him, and because he had no real sense of cause and effect, he doesn't really care what he throws - he's just as happy throwing a beanbag up in the air over and over as he is tossing books, toys and anything else left lying about. His first week with us, he wouldn't set foot in the sensory room. He'd peek in from the door, but that was it. Last week, one of my team managed to coax him in by encouraging him to push the buttons an change the colours on the bubble tube. This week, he'd wander in and out of the room, never staying long. Tuesday, he actually came over to where I was sitting and touched the bubble tube, repeatedly, and then suddenly sat beside me and leaned his forehead against mine and smiled, for about 5 seconds. I was beyond thrilled. It happened twice more, as he wandered in and out of the room through the open door. Fleeting, precious moments of connection.

On Wednesday, my new Speech and Language Pathologist stopped by for a visit in the afternoon, and somehow ended up in the sensory room with me, as we tried to entice this little guy to come in and engage with us while I described him to her. He had wandered in and out several times, until one of the other students shut the door to the room. Instead of trying to let himself out, this little guy proceeded to sit on the floor and "play" with us for the next 4 minutes or so - clapping, smiling, making funny noises back and forth and interacting beautifully. When someone again opened the door, he immediately stood up and left. We shrugged and figured that was the end of our playtime, but we pleased with the interaction we'd had, and we left the little room and headed back into the larger classroom to continue our discussion and observe the other students. Only a minute later, one of my team said in alarm "What's wrong with ***?" We looked over to the carpet and found our happy, smiling little friend rocking himself with tears running down his face. Confused, we pointed out that he had been fine a moment ago, and encouraged one of my team to take him back into the sensory room. She did, shutting the door, and when we peeked in moments later, we saw him happily interacting with her, as well. Weird...

Several minutes later, another student wandered into the sensory room, leaving the door open, and out popped our little friend once more, only to go immediately back to the carpet, sit down and start crying again. We quickly shooed him back into the room with an adult and shut the door, and my SLP looked at me in amazement. "Motor Planning", she said. Pardon?

“To him, an open door means move.  He likely doesn’t have the motor planning to see the door and think “No, I don’t want to leave where I am”, and to physically stay where he is. To him, an open door means go.  Which is also why he wanders.  No boundaries, no motor planning to stay put.” Would I EVER have figured that out on my own??? Holy moly...

The next day, we deliberately sent him into the room to play with someone, and opened the door after a few minutes.  Sure enough, he popped right up to leave, but I gently turned him around at the door and sent him back in, leaving the door open a few moments more before closing it again.  Three times we did this, and finally on the fourth, he DIDN’T GET UP WHEN THE DOOR OPENED.  It was like the heavens opened up and light streamed into the room – I had managed to accomplish something meaningful with this child! He continued to sit and play until I closed the door again, but when I opened it the fifth time, he popped up again and headed toward the door. Sigh...

This time, however, he vocalized and resisted my turning him back, indicating that he really DID want to leave the room, and when I let him out, he went happily to wander about the room, without any sadness this time.

Now, suffice to say I’m pretty sure this won’t magically eliminate his need to wander about, but it does give us valuable information for working with him. Work in a confined space if you want him to stay on task. Give him a chair with arms and a weighted lap mat if you want him to sit.  Theories, really, at this point, but theories are better than nothing to start from, which is where we were last week.

Other little miracles included playing a turn-taking card game with one of my girls, who doesn’t like toys and is hard to entertain during free time. The cards had fruits on them. And Dora.  Let’s not forget Dora, which was the only reason she agreed to sit with me in the first place. J  But she played the whole game, and asked to play again.  She also loves the finger song “Three Little Monkeys” – the one with the crocodile.  Thanks for that little gem, Mom – she asks for it every day.  And when I do cartwheels out on the playground, she giggles her brains out and asks for more.  I get dizzy, but it’s so worth it.

We had a dance party with another of my girls this week – there was some upbeat world beat playing and we all danced around and laughed at each other. Ok, it was mostly my team and I dancing and her laughing at us, but whatever...

On Thursday, I got my big boy to play math games on the computer with me.  Under duress, initially, because it wasn’t his Jimmy Neutron DVD being played and he wasn’t thrilled with that, but after a few clicks he caught on to the game and finished it willingly. He rarely does any work willingly. Score.

Finally, on Friday afternoon, we all worked. Together.  Every kid and every adult in the room were working on the same thing (a picture recipe for chocolate oatmeal cookies that we’re making Monday), at the same time, and everyone was enjoying themselves. Explaining the ingredients in the pictures, doing the sign language, talking about the cookies, glueing the pictures onto the shopping list.  It lasted for about 5 minutes.  It was amazing. It was joyful.  I looked up briefly and took a mental picture, to store away and pull out when the longer, harder moments are getting me down. THIS is what I had in mind when I took over this class.

We have amazing moments in Room 10 – every day.  The trick is to capture those moments, to hold onto them, to strive for them, and to forgive ourselves when they seem few and far between.  Just because they’re small doesn’t mean they’re not mighty as hell... J

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

"You should start a blog..."

Because I need something else to do with my time, right? Here's the deal...
I've been teaching for 10 years.  Along with a host of other things that I'm sure will spill in over time, teaching defines who I am as a person.  I love what I do.

Two weeks ago, I started a new position in a Special Ed class.  6 kids, 3 TA's, and me.  Sounds like a pretty good kid-adult ratio, right? Wrong.  My class is officially labelled "ASD/DD", which stands for Autism Spectrum Disorder and Developmentally Delayed. It means all of my kids have been identified with both of those hefty coathanger labels. Now, I'm no stranger to Special Ed... I spent two amazing years in a class for students with various learning disabilities, and another three years doing support for kids in regular classrooms, everything from behaviour to learning disabilities to gifted. I've had students with autism in my class before, and I've been teaching long enough to know that a class like mine isn't usually where you land by choice. I did. In fact, I gave up being the school librarian - a post most coveted and rare, and one that I loved dearly. I wanted this class. I had big plans.

I spent the last two weeks of August frantically gutting two classrooms - one for work, and one for larger, active play.  I cut, copied, laminated and postered.  I sorted picture symbols and colour-coded visual schedules, put together learning activities, and made transition books for the kids.  I enlisted my husband, sister, parents and anyone else I could find to help, and when the first day finally arrived, I felt ready. The first 4 days were a dream... the kids were happy and compliant, the programs seemed to be working, and I was giddy with my apparent success. The kids entered gradually, a few each day, until I finally had all 6 in the room on Thursday. Plus a visit from the board office resource staff. Which went well. Yay me.

First week Friday, all hell broke loose. Tantrums, behaviours, you name it.  At the end of the day, waiting for the bus outside, one of my kids reached up and pinched a baby in a mother's arms as they passed by. In a second.  Screaming infant, angry and confused mother, who didn't speak any English.  Swarms of people crowding around trying to "help", but only adding to the mother's fright and confusion.  Four of my kids still milling around, waiting for their busses, and not being helped at all by the confusion around them.  The pincher, who has already forgotten what happened, is still trying to touch the baby.  She LIKES babies, wanted to play with it. Try explaining that to the poor mother with the screaming infant. In the crowd. With the kids still in close proximity, and being yelled at for the bad behaviour, which has already been forgotten.

I cried in my principals office, explaining what had happened.  I cried when I finally got into my car, at 5:45 and almost late to get my own daughter from daycare.  I cried on the phone to my sister, leaving an angry message about changed plans for the following day that I just didn't have the strength to deal with.  And when I finally made it home, I sobbed on the couch for 15 minutes, leaving a big wet spot on the blue microfibre and proclaiming to my husband that I thought I had made a very serious mistake.

Week two arrived, dragging me kicking and screaming out of a blissfully busy weekend during which I had almost forgotten the horror of Friday. In no particular order, week 2 brought heaps more tantrums, several loads of laundry as we tried frantically to keep up with changing the kids, three pairs of broken glasses, 5 destroyed books, 2 punctured (chewed!) balls, one frantic chase through the soccer field, 3 parent pickups, 6 bus mixups, 4 frantic and increasingly frustrated calls to the trasportation department, a day where I completely forgot to send any communication books home, and one very unpleasant incident involving feces, laundry, mopping, rubber gloves, and another parent call to please come and pick your child up because he needs a shower and there's no way we can give him one here.. You can't make this stuff up.  My ever-patient husband, when I finally made it home on Friday, conforted me warmly and then joked "You should start a blog."

And here we are.  For better or worse, I am The Teacher in Room 10. More on that next time. Also more on:

a) Why my kids are amazing!
b) Stuff that went RIGHT - because despite the above tirade, there were some great moments!
c) My sensory/Sneozelen room project, for those that are following the project and want to know.

As a final thought: today was awesome. Nothing major went wrong, and everyone left the school happy.  Even me.  That chalks up as a good day. :)