Wednesday, December 19, 2012

I made Giggles cry... and I’m kinda happy about it!

Now, before I get any of you gentle-souled parents and educators jumping on me about anger and patience and etc., let me just state for the record that part of me feels very badly about the story that follows.  I don’t often lose my temper with my students, and when I do, I feel terrible about it for days.  That being said, please, read on and try to see the bigger picture here... as horrible as it sounds, there really is reason to celebrate tears in this case...

For those who are regular followers of Room 10, you’ll know that Giggles is only with us Thursdays and Fridays – she spends rest of the week in IBI, which makes for a pretty disrupted pattern – 2 days at home, 3 days at IBI, two days at school, repeat... not great for consistency in routines, expectations, etc. Now Giggles has an interesting profile – she’s a kid that would likely be integrated in the mainstream, except that she has a really difficult time interacting appropriately – she grabs, headlocks and pinches people on a regular basis – not in an aggressive way, but because she really likes them and wants to interact.  She also likes to poke at eyes and grab at inappropriate areas... not exactly the kind of thing that they tend to put up with in a mainstream setting.  She also like to scream randomly to get a reaction – a hair-raising, ear-splitting scream that scares the bejeezus out of you if you’re not expecting it... which you never are, since she likes to do it at random quiet times... Thankfully, not too often.
Anyway, aside from the behaviour stuff, Giggles has an awesome receptive vocabulary, a great memory, and a real interest in other people.  She also has great gross-motor skills and is generally super-compliant  - except for when she has the sillies, hence the nickname. We’ve had a really hard time nailing down a  good strategy to help her control her impulses, mostly due to the fact that we only see her 2 days a week!
So last Friday, she was in fine form right from the get-go – full on sillies and giggling, and a few choice screams before we even started circle around 9am. Now usually, the scream gets either ignored completely or gets a quiet, right-in-the-eyes “Giggles, stop. No screaming. It hurts our ears” and that’s usually enough – we rarely hear more than 2 a day. This morning, however, neither seemed to be working, and when Mr. Intense strolled by and reached out during circle, heading for her hair, Giggles let out yet another blood-curdling shriek. Now, as he didn’t actually touch her, they both got a sharp “stop” and a quick re-direct. We carried on with circle, but less than a minute later, he was up again, and this time, he managed to actually get a handful of her hair. *Now, to be fair, she does have a sensitive scalp – I know this from having put her hair elastics back in multiple times every day, as she pulls them out as soon as no one is looking!  However, and I’m not exaggerating here, the scream that came out of her was so long, so loud and so high-pitched that I’m surprised the windows didn’t all shatter instantly.
All of what followed happened in an instant - Mouse and Little Guy both clapped their hands over their ears and started to cry, one of my TA’s grabbed Mr. Intense by the wrist and released his fingers from Giggles’ hair and I, sitting right in front of them both as it happened, and knowing that the TA’s were dealing with Intense, turned to Giggles and hollered right at her: “GIGGLES! STOP! NO SCREAMING!” And yes, let’s take a pause here to recognize the irony of me pretty much screaming at her to stop screaming. I didn’t say I was proud, I said I was happy... read on...
Following that one chaotic instant, I pulled my usual “Jekyll and Hyde” routine and immediately turned to the rest of the kids, smiled, and asked Sunshine what song she’d like to sing, intending to continue with circle. This worked, to some extent, in that she asked for “If you’re happy and you know it”, my TA’s and I started singing, Little Guy and Mouse stopped crying and Mr. Intense was so overwhelmed by the chaos that had ensued that he actually sat down and allowed a TA to lead him through the actions. But here’s where it gets interesting.  After the first verse, I turned to Giggles, intending to smile and pull her into the familiar routine, and found that as predicted, she was already singing along.  What I wasn’t prepared for was the very obvious signs on her face that she was actually fighting back tears as she sang, and when I continued to look at her, she tried to turn away and hide her face, eyes welling up more when I looked at her...
I was blown away – not by the tears themselves, because I’m sure the hair pull hurt like the dickens , and no doubt that was part of it, given her sensitive scalp.  What floored me, though, was her effort (and failure) to stay composed, and specifically, to avoid contact with me (presumably because I had just yelled at her).  This is a kid who never seems bothered by reprimands, giggles on through-redirection and is never, never sad or grumpy. Tired, yes, but sad and mad are pretty much only seen on her when we’re doing an emotion imitation activity, and even then, she’s pretty bad at those expressions and generally finds them hilarious.
And literally, in that split second, I felt two equal emotions – first, horrible guilt for having just yelled at her and obviously caused the distress, but second, flooding wonder and joy at what a TYPICAL reaction she had had. She and I are buddies, it’s no secret – she’ll usually listen to me over anyone, and we have regular “chats” about how awesome and smart I know she is. And here was this kid, reacting in EXACTLY the way a typical kid would after being yelled at by someone they love.
Not wanting to leave her in distress, we finished the song and I quickly motioned to one of my TA’s to finish circle, and told Giggles to come with me.  Still teary, she had clenched her hands and was obviously reluctant to go with me into the hallway, but she did, allowing me to lead her to our Movement Room next door, where we sat on the edge of the new play structure.  I smoothed her hair and hugged her around the shoulders and apologized for yelling at her, and told her that I knew it must have hurt to have her hair pulled. I also reminded her that it hurts our ears, and that she had made Little Guy and Mouse cry with her loud scream, and that she needed to use her words to tell Mr. Intense to go away (which she usually does quite readily). I could tell she was still not quite composed, so I suggested she use the slide, and then we jumped together on the trampolines until she finally started smiling again. After that we headed for a bathroom break and then back to class, where circle was over and everyone was busily engaged in their work blocks. We worked through her four activities and then did some shared reading, and by the time I sent her off to a preferred activity, she seemed to be back to her old self, albeit slightly less silly than she had been earlier.
Fridays being our busy days, I had almost forgotten about the incident by the end of the day, when I was sitting at my desk writing in their agendas.  Across the room, my TA’s were helping the kids get ready to go home, and Giggles, in typical fashion, was more interested in trying to do some sort of booty-bumping Bollywood dance and laughing than getting her coat on.  After several attempts from my TA’s to redirect her which elicited nothing but more laughter, I hollered across the room (NOT unkindly this time, just loud enough to be heard over the din) “Giggles! Coat ON!” She immediately looked my way, stopped bumping and grinding and proceeded to get her coat and boots on without any further silliness. By then, agendas were tucked away in the correct backpacks, and she happily took my hand and headed down the hall to the bus, where she said “good-bye” and “see you tomorrow!” before bounding up onto the bus.
The moral of the story? I’m not quite sure, to be honest.  I laughed when I saw this cartoon, but there’s some truth in it, too. Truth is, I’m not much of a yeller, and I’m not good at confrontation in general, and I certainly don’t use it as a regular tool with my students.  That being said, here’s the thing... my first year of teaching, my classroom was across the hall from two separate teachers who were both “yellers”.  They we’re always raising their voices with their students, and although I don’t think there was much actual mean-spiritedness to it, I’m not convinced it was terrifically effective, either.  I, on the other hand, was not a yeller.  I ruled my room through affection and respect – my kids knew I loved them and that I expected good behaviour from them, and because they liked me, they tried to meet those expectations.  That’s kind of my approach to classroom management in a nutshell, and I use much the same philosophy now in Room 10, in that I really believe the relationships with the kids are what are most fundamental to their ability to learn and thrive in the room. That being said, here’s the thing... when I taught mainstream, I could probably count on one hand the number of times I raised my voice to the class in an angry way. And when I did – THEY LISTENED. Because those kids knew that if I was mad enough about something to raise my voice, that they were in serious trouble, and had better smarten up, fast.  And in a very similar way, I think that’s what happened with Giggles today, too, for the first (and hopefully last!) time.
Am I going to take up yelling at my kids as a behaviour management technique? Hell, no! But today, for those few minutes, that moment of lost self-control on my part turned out to be a blessing in disguise, because it allowed me to see a side of Giggles that I had always suspected was there, but never could nail down – a typical kid hiding under that ASD, who was really genuinely upset that her beloved teacher had yelled at her, and who was able to show that emotion in such a visible, familiar way that it literally stopped me in my tracks.
I’m sorry for your tears, Giggles, and I’m sorry for your hurt. But kiddo, I love you too much not to admit that no matter what happens, I will always be a little glad to have seen you cry. xo

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Shut Up and Listen

I didn't intend to write tonight, but in surfing my amazing blog friends on Facebook, I came across an article someone else had posted about a recent C-Span feature in the US about federal responses to autism. Now, I don’t pay a whole lot of attention to US politics in general, but the principle of the article interested me – that two of the panelists in this tv feature had autism themselves, and the author’s take on it was that no one had really listened to what these men had to say about themselves and their community.
I’m not even going to attempt to get into the political murkiness of which organizations fund what and why, but I do know that as awesome as all the bio-medical and causation research is, it’s not helping my students, who need funding and supports for programs that will help them communicate, self-regulate, and participate in the world as much as they want to.

Now, I’m not complaining, either... Room 10’s little slice of life in the autism world is pretty beautifully supported in many ways – our complete sensory room, our community programs, our visiting therapy dog, and our amazing new gross-motor play structure (thank you grant funding and anonymous donor!) But none of that helps my buddies when they go home, and I know the wait lists for IBI, respite care, social groups, OT, PT and SLP support are long and often expensive. Maybe instead of focussing on a “cure”, we could at least SPLIT focus and spend as much on supporting kids and adults with autism in ways that they need now?

This is the author’s take on the uneven funding and focus:

How is it that we can say we "care" about autism and those who are autistic, yet not fund programs that will make their lives better? How is it we can use war terminology and ignore that these words make those who are on the spectrum feel badly about their very existence? Is this how we want our children to feel? Do we really want our own children to grow up believing they are fundamentally wrong, at fault and "broken"?
Let's just say, for the sake of argument, that our autistic children, whether they speak or not, whether they are in a special education classroom or are included with a regular classroom, most of them, if not all, can and do understand what is being said about them, but they cannot tell us or do not have the ability to communicate in a way that we, who are non-autistic, can understand or recognize. Can we at least imagine what that would be like if this were done to us? Can we try, just for a moment to have the empathy needed to imagine? Are we compassionate enough to pause, even if for a moment, and consider the implications of what we are saying and doing? Even if we cannot or do not want to think about all the autistic adults whom we do not know, can we think about our own child? Our children will be adults one day, do we really want them to feel as so many autistic adults do? Do we really want our children growing up feeling they are a "burden" to not just us, but to society? Is this the message we want to pass along? Because at this moment, that is exactly what we are doing.
Which not only explains eloquently why funding needs to be re-distributed, but also brings me to a pet peeve in general when it comes to my students – the assumption that they can’t or don’t understand or hear what is going on around them. This DRIVES ME INSANE. And I’m not even talking about big things, like discussing complicated world issues in front of them, using inappropriate language or talking about our private lives in a way that we would never dream of doing in front of NT kids. I’m talking about little things. For example, how things went in the washroom. I mean, really? 

Let’s just imagine, for a second, that a neuro-typical 8-year old with some kind of physical mobility issue needed help in the washroom regularly.  Would we really announce, arriving back in the classroom, “Ok, Junior here went. He had a big poop, and it seemed to really be hurting him, but he got it out and washed his hands nicely.” REALLY? How embarrassed would that 8-year old kid be to have that announced to everyone in the room?  THEN WHY ON EARTH DO WE DO THIS TO OUR KIDDOS WITH ASD??? Seems like nothing, but why is it that just because a kid is non-verbal, we assume they don’t understand or hear (or feel/react to) what is being said.

I will never for a second forget the words of CarlyFleishmann’s father, Arthur, in an interview he did about Carly learning to type.  He said the worst moment was the one in which he suddenly realized that for years, they had been talking about Carly in front of her as if she wasn’t there. It stuck with me, and it changes the things I say and do every day.

I try to remember to talk TO my kids, not about them.  And even when I do talk about them, I try to do in such a way as I would any kid – recognizing that they can hear and understand what I am saying, and speaking accordingly.  Honestly, if I could change one thing about Room 10, it would be some kind of magical filter that reminds adults that our kids CAN and DO understand, and to speak and behave accordingly. About the bathroom... about our personal lives... and most of all, as the author points out, when we are talking directly about autism, or behaviour, or ability. No one should have to constantly feel as though the way they are is some kind of problem that needs to be solved, or that everyone around them feels sorry for them, or their families. And maybe, just maybe, they’d be a whole lot more motivated to communicate with us if we would just shut up and listen.