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Sunday, November 27, 2011

Freedom from Four White Walls

The best part about homeschooling Jackson has been the freedom we have regarding "out of the classroom" activities. We are not limited to 2 field trips a year or 1 CBI (Community Based Instruction) per month. We go out and about every single day. We go shopping, walk the dog, visit parks, libraries, and monuments. We meet all kinds of interesting people and ask a zillion random questions. We learn new life skills and practice, practice, practice social interactions.

Children with special needs have many developmental obstacles to overcome. Being stuck inside a classroom all day limits their ability to practice many of the critical life skills that they will need once they become adults and are expected to integrate into a "neurotypical" society. So Jackson and I take every opportunity to head outside of our dining room table-top classroom and explore the world around us. I categorize our excursions into 3 main groups with each one having it's own set of rules so he knows what to expect and can mentally prepare for each trip. This minimizes behavioral outbursts that are usually a result of confusion over expectations on his part.

1. Shopping - Every day, after we do our Morning Work, we head out to run errands. We typically leave the house around 10:00 and come home by 11:00. This is our time to practice everyday social and communication skills such as asking store employees for help, paying for items, counting money, waiting in line, talking with a quiet voice, using lists to buy only a few items, making hard choices about wants verses needs, etc... During these outings, he is allowed to have his iPod. This is important because the iPod gives him a tremendous amount of comfort and security that allows me to challenge him with harder social and communication tasks because he is already at ease and calm. Our favorite errands are grocery stores, coffee shops, big box stores, and anywhere that has enough people and commotion that any of his verbal or behavioral miscues go generally unnoticed.

2. CBI - Community Based Instruction A few times a week we try to do a CBI trip. CBI stands for "Community Based Instruction" which is a well known part of most special needs curriculum around the country. While it has always been a favorite activity of Jackson's, the public schools have decreased the number of outings to only a few a year due to decreased funding, transportation issues, behavioral concerns, and rapidly increasing numbers of special needs students per classroom. This has been a big disappointment for us since the community is such a critical part of his learning environment. The purpose of a CBI trip is not as much social/comunication skills practice as it is life experience gathering. It is our opportunity to show Jackson how many cool and exciting things are out there to see and do, so when he gets discouraged or frustrated with his limitations, we can remind him of all that is possible and not just what is impossible for him. So, thankfully, now that we homeschool, I can do as many CBIs as I want! We have already gone to the library, movie theater, mall, restaurants, lakes, parks, sporting events, and a college campus in the last 2 weeks. And there are so many more places try, such as farms, train stations, local museums, military bases, nature centers...the list goes on and on! I often allow the iPod on these trips, unless I think it will be disruptive or distracting. I want Jackson to take in the big picture during these activities and the iPod helps him focus and tune out any irritating sensory things that might derail the experience. These trips typically last an hour or so, and that can be a long period of time for him to "hold it together".

3. Field Trip At least once a month, I would like to take Jackson on a full day field trip. These outings are much more planned out and academic in nature. This month, we went to The White House. We spent a week learning all about it here at home before we ventured downtown to check out the real thing. I try to give Jackson a very detailed schedule of the day so he knows exactly what we will be doing and when. He is not allowed to have an iPod during these trips because I want him to be more actively involved in the learning process. I do allow him to take pictures which helps me guide him to certain objects of interest for us to discuss or highlight topics we learned about previously. I asked him to make a movie of our White House field trip using my iPhone, thinking it would be a cool way for him to capture the day and help him remember the important parts. But the craziest thing happened, he immediately switched my phone from video to camera and began taking pictures of all the protestors. He was fascinated with them all. He took pictures of their faces, their signs, their megaphones, their tents...He was drawn to the people around The White House, not the actual building itself.
It was a remarkable moment for me as I watched him study these people and show such a genuine interest in their emotions and faces. As we proceeded to walk around Lafayette Square and down towards the Washington Monument, he must have taken over 100 pictures of random people. What struck me about his desired subjects, was that he did not take one single picture of a man or woman in a business suit. Here we are, standing smack dab in the middle to the most powerful city on Earth, with very important people swirling all around us on their Blackberries, drinking their Starbucks, and he completely ignored them. He only took pictures of everyday people. It was neat for me to see humanity through his eyes and see what he values, not what the world tells me I should value in a person. I am excited to see what both Jackson and I learn on these adventures! Some of my other field trip ideas are the Newseum, Library of Congress, Great Falls, Mount Vernon, Baltimore Aquarium, Bull Run Battlefield, the list just goes on and on.

I had a lightbulb moment when we were sitting in our public school IEP meeting a few weeks ago to discuss Jackson's behavioral outbursts since beginning middle school. When Paul and I were discussing some of the techniques we use to manage Jackson's behavior, we talked a lot about how we do it while out and about in the community. The head administrator of the autism program looked at us with a shocked expression on his face, and said, "you take him out?" It hit me at that very moment that this man and that entire program would never "get it" in regards to not just Jackson but to developmentally disabled individuals in general. It broke my heart that this man did not believe in Jackson and never would. We pulled him out of that school the next day. So yes, "I take him out" and I love every glorious moment of seeing him discover the world around him and all of his potential in that world.

Follow me on Twitter too:!/hometeachautism

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Team Teaching Autism with Caroline

One of the unexpected benefits of homeschooling Jackson has been the educational collaboration I've been able to do with Caroline. She has taken a keen interest not only in what I am teaching Jackson, but in how his actual academic progress is coming along. This has spilled over into non-school related situations as well. While opening her birthday presents on Saturday, she asked Jackson to read all of her cards and encouraged him to cut all the ribbons.  This was a sweet moment for Paul and I as parents of both these remarkable children.

Caroline is an unusual child in many ways, but it is her heart that makes her the most unique 10 year old I have ever met. She is extremely selfless and more intuitive than any adult I know. She is very aware of Jackson's strengths and weaknesses and knows how and when to challenge him or support him as the situation dictates.  Likewise, Jackson responds to her amazingly well.  He trusts her and looks to her for encouragement and reinforcement if he is confused or frustrated.

Recently, I was showing her Jackson's latest math work and explaining that I was having trouble explaining the concept of subtraction regrouping to him, and she suggested a different approach.  I tried it the next day, and sure enough, Jackson got it right away.  Similarly, I was struggling to find a good science unit to do with him, and she encouraged me to do the Solar System, since that it what she is doing in school and thought it would be cool for them to learn about it together.  So now, everyday after school, she comes home to look through his science lesson and talks to him about it.

This interest in his development is nothing new, but there is definitely a new fascination with his school work.  Even though he is in 6th grade, most of his academics are at the 4th grade level, so they are learning a lot of the same things.  His spelling lists look similar to hers and his math is identical.  Caroline has no shortage of self-confidence and she knows she is a bright child, so seeing Jackson doing the same level of work, gives her a new perspective into what he is capable of learning.  It is neat to see her so proud of him.

One of the things I have come to realize in the last few weeks is that homeschooling is not a one-woman job.  I am not Jackson's teacher.  I am just one of many educators that he comes into contact with on any given day.  I see myself as more of a guide or facilitator.  I arrange interactions with countless people that I believe have something to offer Jackson.  I introduce him to situations that he can gain understanding from.  I stand back and let him lead me to the people, places and things that he is interested in exploring.  He is a highly curious and engaging young man that people are drawn to and forever changed because of their interaction with him.

Caroline is one of these people.  She is a better person because of her relationship with Jackson, and she knows it.  She is thankful for him and that attitude shines through her everyday.  She is a founding member of a special needs sibling support group at her school, and the school psychologist and social worker tell me every week how her participation in that group is vital because she has so much wisdom to offer the other members.

I am beyond blessed to have her as a partner in this homeschooling adventure. Here is a sweet message that she wrote on the wall in Jackson's room last week (we gave her permission ahead of time):

And after I finished writing this blog, I let her read it before I posted it and she said, "you make me sound perfect". To which I quickly responded, "notice how I only talked about your response to me homeschooling Jackson, not about how clean your room is or how well you listen when asked to help around the house or take a shower."...To which she said, "touche, mama."

Follow me on Twitter too:!/hometeachautism

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Awesome iPad

Jackson has always been a techno geek. By age 2, he was adding Spanish subtitles to every TV he could get his sticky little fingers on. When Paul was in Afghanistan, it was a 3 yr old Jackson, who could barely talk, that had to help me set up Skype so we could video chat. He taught himself to read at age 4 so he could hack into our computer and access Veggie Tales websites. I could spend hours listing all the crazy ways this kid has been years ahead of his peers in his understanding and use of technology. He's had an ear bud hanging out of his head since he could walk, using those old school MP3 and portable CD players to access audio stimulation on the go. Many people thought we were crazy to buy a young and irresponsible autistic child an expensive iPod and give him the freedom to use it however and whenever he desired. But it wasn't until the iPad that his use of technology radically changed.

Before iPad: For the past 10 years, Jackson has used his knowledge of technology for evil. His brilliance for all things electronic has caused some major issues both behaviorally and financially. His love of technology can cause behavioral issues because, if overused, Jackson will begin to stim on certain items. For those of you with some understanding of autism, you surely know the concept of stimming. It is the term used to describe the repetitive action made during periods of sensory overload. It is a type of coping mechanism used to manage overstimulation. We know Jackson is stimming on something when he wiggles his knees in and out and jumps up and down. We call it "shakey-shakey". When Jackson is exposed to too much technology, he begins to stim and this usually leads to behavioral outbursts. We have found that the quickest way to help him manage his emotions is to take all technology away for long periods of time. Technology has also caused some major financial hardships. He burns through iPods like they are disposable cameras. He disregards common rules like not eating/drinking near keyboards which has led to multiple laptop crashes. He changes setting on things and we can never figure out how to change them back. He loses chargers and adaptors rendering items useless.

You might think this is all parental negligence, and you are partially correct. But what you fail to understand is that we permit these lapses in judgement because the greater good is so much greater. We have always allowed Jackson to use the latest gadget with little oversight because it has always given him a radical boost in communication and emotional understanding. He discovered YouTube a few years ago and he has used it to search for scenes from TV shows that mimic what he is feeling. He then acts them out for us when he is trying to express his emotions. Even though all this technology has provided some benefit for him, it was never exactly the right fit for his needs. We just kind of took what we could get and dealt with the unpleasant side-effects because the medication was so beneficial.

After iPad: But then came the iPad! It was finally the perfect marriage of technology and education that eliminated the unwanted stimming and had such a simple interface that even Jackson has not been able to damage, lose or crack off an essential part (knock on wood). It is more than just the amazing array of apps available that make it so perfect for Jackson. It is the intuitive nature of the touchscreen, the ideal size and weight to be able to have great visual impact without being too small to lose or too big to be impractical...even the coolness factor makes it ideal. He can carry it around and his peers think it is awesome - that he is awesome for having his own iPad!

The iPad is an integral part of our homeschooling curriculum as well. It is not used as a form of entertainment but strictly as part of a lesson. I find apps that support the day's lesson and I use them as reinforcers at the end of each block of instruction. For example, if I am doing a lesson on multiplication, I will create a quiz on MathBoard using the number set that we worked on that day. If we are working on nouns/verbs then he will complete 20 questions on the Sentence Builder app. There really is an app for everything! And many of them are free. I can pinpoint exactly what he needs to work on and find a very specific app that focuses his attention on an isolated task or skill. He does all his iPad lessons independently because they are meant to serve as confidence boosting tools. Most of the apps have the coolest encouragements built in so when a child successfully completes a task, there is always clapping, cheering or even confetti..which is amazing for Jackson's academic self-esteem.

So here is a short list of my favorite apps that we are currently using. This list grows daily, so I will try to post new lists often.

Language Arts:

Brain Pop
Story Builder
Question Builder
Language Builder
Sentence Builder
Montessori Words
Build a Word

Math & Science:

Math Board
Splash Math
Rocket Math
Solar System HD
Jungle Coins


Calm Counter
Model Me Kids
ABA Flashcards
Autism Xpress
Autism Apps

By far the best iPad resource for homeschooling autism is AutismApps. It is a comprehensive database of over 150 apps that serve people with developmental disabilities and other special needs. It is truly a life saver! It has everything organized by categories that make it super user friendly. While many of the apps are geared towards younger children, I have been able to find so many helpful tools that have made homeschooling much more effective and successful.

At the end of the day, technology is a blessing and a curse in this house. Jackson has thrived because of it, but it has also caused a lot of anxiety (and not just for him). But when we weigh these pros and cons against each other, we can't help but agree that the pain we occasionally endure is no comparison to the elation we feel when Jackson connects with us on a linguistic and emotional level we only dreamed of a decade ago.

Follow me on Twitter too:!/hometeachautism

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Daily Schedule

Jackson requires a very detailed schedule in order to prepare himself for both the work and transitions of a "typical" school day. It does not matter if he is being taught at home or in an institutional environment, he REQUIRES a detailed schedule for success. One of the failures of the public school was their inability to provide him with this information. I create his schedule every night and keep it on a clip board. He is allowed to bring it anywhere he wants so he can frequently refer to it throughout the day. This helps him understand the expectations for his time and academic efforts.

Here is our actual schedule from Friday, November 11th.

8-8:30 Watch News & Eat Breakfast
8:30 Get Dressed, Deodorant, Vitamins, Brush Teeth
8:45-9:30 *Morning Work*
- Daily Work: 1 worksheet
- Handwriting: 1 worksheet
- Read Chapter 3 in Big Nate
- Yoga
9:30-11 Shopping (with iPod): Harris Teeter, Starbucks
11 - 12 *Language Arts*
- Read, cut, & paste articles from New York Times into writing journal
- Spelling Test: 2 worksheets
- Sentence Building Lesson: 2 worksheets
- Antonyms Lesson: 2 worksheets
- iPad: 2 games: iSentence, Feel Electric
12-12:30 Lunch
12:30-1 Walk Duke
1-2 *Math*
- Odd/Even & Rounding Review: 2 worksheets
- Greater/Less Than Lesson: 2 worksheets
- Place Value Lesson: 1 worksheet
- iPad games: SplashMath - 2, 20 question quizzes
2-2:30 iPad Reward
2:30-3 *Social Studies*
- Color, cut and paste 3 worksheets on members of family
- Create Family Tree Book
3-4 End of School Day: Tivo
4-5 Computer
5:00 Download Skeeball to iPad for "Awesome Week" reward
6-9 Georgetown Women's Basketball Game
9:30 Bedtime

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Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Quick Victories

I am taking my own advice and writing a quick blog to get something accomplished before I get bogged down even more and never write one again. I believe very strongly in the need for quick victories to keep excitement and motivation up for challenging tasks. For example, when we changed J's diet for the first time I was only able to persevere because we saw some immediate and rapid gains in his eye contact and language. The same is true for all the hard things in life, a win right off the bat is important to keep you moving forward with confidence. These wins can be small and relatively insignificant, but they must be quick to be effective. I've been fortunate to have had a few quick victories with Jackson this week that have kept me excited about homeschooling.

1. Lower Case Handwriting - He has NEVER written in lower case letters. He writes in all uppercase, and even those are too big and usually pretty sloppy. Last week I decided to try adding a "penmenship" lesson to his daily morning work. I was blown over by how well he followed the directions and wrote the whole alphabet in perfectly sized and extremely neat lower case letters...the very first time he tried it! So much for "he can't write lowercase letters". Victory!

2. Reading Outloud Jackson has always hated reading. He rarely picks up a book on his own and when he does, it is usually a few levels below what he is capable of reading. I know he can read well, but I also know he does not like it. So I added "Reading with Mom" to his daily schedule. It took a few days, but I finally found the right book, and today we read Chapter 2 of "Big Nate" out loud together. We alternate paragraphs and it works beautifully! He is expressive in his reading and often will read my part if he is excited about the story. So much for, "he won't read in class." Victory!

3. Calm Yoga Practice Jackson can get really silly. Once he gets on a roll, it is hard to refocus him. So in the mornings, I decided to add yoga to our routine to help him start off the day with a calm and focused energy. It started off OK, then he got silly during the warrior poses. But then, out of no where he pulled it together for a good 5 minutes of tree poses where he just balanced on 1 foot and held these challenging poses without cracking even the slightest smile. I tried to avoid eye contact so I didn't distract him. After we were done, he rolled up both our mats, got his shoes on and was super chill for the rest of the morning. So much for, "he can't sit still and focus for more than 30 sec." Victory!

These quick victories in the last few days have encouraged me to keep pressing forward with more challenging and innovate tasks for Jackson. I know there will be long stretches of discouragement along the way, but these small accomplishments are essential for me to maintain a positive attitude and a joyful spirit.

Follow me on Twitter too:!/hometeachautism

Friday, November 4, 2011

Lessons from Week #1

Paul and Caroline have left for Friday night basketball and Jackson is outside playing football. This is my time to steal a few minutes with a glass of wine and get my thoughts about this week down in print before they become forever lost in the chaos of my mind. I plan on writing about why we decided to homeschool Jackson at some point, but not today. The reasons why make me sad and since this was one of the best weeks I've had in a long time, I prefer to dwell on my blessings and not my hardships. So here are my 5 main lessons from this week's adventure.

Lesson #1: The best way to learn how to teach Jackson is to listen to how he wants to be taught: Jackson has very low academic self-confidence. Even though he has "passed advanced" all his SOL's and been on honor roll countless times, he still needs a tremendous amount of encouragement that the work he is doing is correct and of good quality. So I learned very quickly to heap on the praise literally after every problem/question. I successfully moved him through 4 weeks of math in 5 days by just high fiving him every few minutes!

Lesson #2: The more detailed the schedule the better: Paul and I live by the belief that proper expectations are the key to a happy marriage and life! The same can be said for teaching many children with autism, especially Jackson. His daily schedule is not only broken into 15-30 minute blocks, but within each block, a detailed description of the activity is listed, i.e. 2:00-2:30 Math - 5 worksheets, Jungle Coins iPad game (level 3), Mathboard iPad game (1-20 question quiz), Money Tray Game - making change. And he does every single thing with zero complaining b/c he is mentally prepared for those activities.

Lesson #3: Stick to the Schedule!: Math never starts before 2 and never ends after 2:30, if something looks like it will get in the way, I change the schedule so the new times are in writing and he can read them himself, but I never disregard what I have written down. To Jackson, that is a binding contract and for me to break it would be a betrayal of his trust. He trusts me to be true to my word and I need to honor that everyday.

Lesson #4: Transitions are his Achilles Heel: If I am not prepared for what is next on the schedule then it will probably not happen. For example, I had "Reading Time" down for 8:45-9:00 and I couldn't find the book, so that whole block of instruction was lost. I need to bring my A game if I expect him to push himself to learn things that are challenging for reading outloud.

Lesson #5: The more laughter the better the learning: Jackson is a funny man! He is genuinely hilarious. He finds tremendous joy in making people laugh. It is what gives him purpose and fulfillment. If I don't recognize his need for that feedback from me, then I am failing him as his teacher, friend and mother. So I laugh often and loudly, even if it is in the middle of a lesson on sentence structure or regrouping. He learns best when he is feeling understood and appreciated.

Follow me on Twitter too:!/hometeachautism