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Friday, December 16, 2011

Unexpected Reading Breakthroughs

I am going to be a guest blogger on Hip Homeschool Moms this week and I decided to write about a minor-miracle we had with Jackson's reading last week.  In addition to that big breakthrough, we also had another big "ah-ha" moment.  I wanted to write about it here also and just link the 2 blog posts together so you could get the big picture.  So, if you've already read Part 1 of this blog on Hip Homeschool Moms, just skip over it to Part 2.

Part 1

My son Jackson, has always struggled with reading.  He does not like to read independently nor does he always understand what he is reading.  Comprehension has been the biggest road block to his advancement in a number of areas.  His special education teachers spent hours on the who, what, when, where, why questions with limited success.  They communicated that he refused to read out loud and when asked to answer simple questions about a passage, he would often have an outburst of some kind that involved kicking, spitting or yelling which led to an overemphasis on behavioral interventions and resulted in the side lining of his reading education.

From the minute we began our homeschooling adventure, I knew reading had to be a priority.  I started slowly with simply reading out loud, followed by basic comprehension activities.  I quickly discovered that he did in fact get very upset when asked these questions.  It did not take me long to figure out that my voice had power.  I could sooth or irritate, teach or torment.  I quickly learned when to speak and when to remain silent based on his needs at any particular moment.  I knew I had to change my approach to his reading challenges, I just had no idea where to begin.  

Then I listened to him.  I stopped berating him with The Five Ws worksheets, I stopped making charts of setting, character, problem, solution, etc... I gave him a book, asked him to read and watched him.  I did not correct his pronunciation errors or redirect him when he got distracted.   I was silent for a solid month.  I just observed and smiled a lot as he read to me.  And I noticed something peculiar.  Everytime he began to read out loud, within 30 seconds he would begin yawning and put his head on my shoulder.  I had never noticed it before, probably because I was too busy correcting him or telling him to pay attention.  So I jumped on my BFF, Google and found this article by HSLDA entitled Visual Processing Dysfunction Characteristics.  It mentioned that one of the signs of this learning issues was yawning shortly after reading begins.  This was a huge lightbulb moment for me!  

They suggested a few things to try to see if a visual processing dysfunction was the culprit behind a child's reading problems.  One idea caught my eye immediately because it had been suggested to me a few years earlier by our developmental pediatrician, but I dismissed it as unnecessary because Jackson's reading seemed fine at that time...Colored Overlays.  I ordered a pack of multi-colored transparencies from that day.  From the get-go that he preferred the darker colors that reduced the contrast between the white page and the black letters.

I decided to take a video of Jackson reading before and after using the dark blue colored overlay.  I can not stress enough how profound the change was in a 30 second time period.  Note that this video clip is of him reading from the same page - only a few seconds elapsed between the clips.  The only change that occurred was the addition of the overlay.   For those of you who have a child with ADD/ADHD/Dyslexia/ASD or any other learning disabilities, you will appreciate the "before" clip and laugh at how distracted and spacey Jackson is while he is reading.  It makes the "after" clip seem like a totally different child!


The most valuable lesson I learned through this process was that Jackson has great reading skills and comprehension ability, the challenge is figuring out how to get it out of him!  It's all in there, he just has a number of peculiar roadblocks that have prevent him from "succeeding" academically in this area.  Whether it is a visual processing dysfunction or even a speech and language delay, learning differences need to be addressed with patience and with an open mind to a new and unexpected technique.  I'm excited to tackle the next challenge in Jackson's education...since we've only been homeschooling for 6 weeks!

Part 2

After this discovery, I decided to push him a little farther in his reading comprehension. The hope was that this increase reading fluency and focus would translate into better comprehension.  Again, I was surprised by what I discovered.

I started with a new workbook that I picked because of its use of multiple activities for a single story.  Most comprehension materials I had used up until that point were all short passages coupled with a few questions and the information just went in one ear and out the other.  I wanted to find slightly longer passages with 6-10 activities that I could stretch out over a full week.  I finally found a good starter book at the 2nd grade level, which is about where Jackson's comprehension falls.  What I love about this book is that he can read the same story everyday for a week and be challenged to remember more and more details as time passes.  He is like a sponge that needs time to absorb the information and then process it before he can give it back to you.

Here is a video clip of him trying to answer a who question after reading the story only 1 time (and yes, we are using the blue overlay for his reading at this point, and yes, he is obviously distracted by the video camera:)

Now here is a clip of him on the 3rd day of reading the same story.  This time he was asked to do a sequencing activity, which has been impossible up until this point, even with basic concepts like how to build a snowman or get dressed.


I was genuinely surprised at how easily he ordered the parts of the story.  He was still a bit distracted by the video camera - he is a bit of a ham after all, but never the less, he knew the sequence of events in the story!  There was no yelling, kicking or spitting out of frustration!  This was a big moment for him and it will hopefully translate into more comprehension success in the future.

These 2 big discoveries illustrate why I am so excited about homeschooling autism.  The one-on-one attention that Jackson clearly needs is just not available in a big public middle school special needs program.  His 6th grade classroom had 7 students, all with completely different learning disabilities.  There was no way his teacher could spend this much time and thought on his reading.  We were told that during his morning Independent Reading Time, which was 20 min of silent reading at their desks, that he would just spin the book around and play with it and when the teacher would eventually come over to him and try to read with him, he would blow in her face and kick the desk. She tried to "focus his attention" and employ "behavior modification" to get him to do his work, but he simply refused to cooperate, therefore he was labeled as unmanageable and too difficult to teach.

It saddens me that those teachers have missed out on the experience of breaking through to an autistic student in such a profound way.  As a professional teacher myself, it is these moments that make a career of educating worth every challenging minute.  I am so blessed to be the one who gets to experience all of his victories and rejoice with him because he is clearly proud of himself as well!

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Sunday, December 4, 2011

Yoga + Autism = Natural Calm

Jackson was diagnosed with PDD-NOS (autism) in October of 2002, in Fayetteville, NC while Paul was stationed at Ft. Bragg.  He left for Afghanistan 6 weeks later.  I have a very vivid memory of a moment between Caroline and I in the kitchen of our home.  I was loading the dishwasher while Jackson was running around, screaming and destroying the house and Caroline, who was only 14 months at the time, was promptly unloading all the dirty utensils I had just finished putting into the dishwasher.  I turned to her with a dead serious face and said, "if we are going to survive the next year, you have got to help me." Sweet thing looked right back at me, slowly put the forks back into the rack and sat on the floor quietly until I was finished.  I was at my breaking point and we clearly both knew it.  The next day, I ordered a yoga DVD and set off on a journey to learn to manage my stress during this very challenging time in my life.  Now, I am bringing Jackson on that journey with me, hoping that yoga will help him experience the same peacefulness and calm that I have through the simple practice of slowing my body and mind down to focus on the present and leave the worries about the future behind.

As a former gymnast, I was naturally drawn to yoga, in particular, its combination of balance and flexibility.  I had no previous experience with yoga, so I just went online and bought the first DVD that looked approachable to a novice, and what I discovered was, Yoga for Dummies by Sara Ivanhoe.  I absolutely loved it!  It was simple and clear, not too "out-there" from a spiritual perspective.  It slowly built up my confidence and in no time I felt much more peaceful and in control of my anxiety and emotions.  I learned very quickly that I could not let my young children derail my yoga practice time.  They would crawl under and on top of me while I worked out, but I was determined not to give up, so I did most of my early yoga with my eyes closed and this helped both Jackson and Caroline understand that I was not going to give them the attention they were seeking, so they both eventually wandered off and gave me the 20 minutes I needed to do a complete routine.

Overtime, I noticed that Jackson started to randomly do downward dogs and other yoga poses around the house.  He always liked being upside down, so yoga probably made a lot of sense to him from the very beginning.  I found the best DVD for him called, YogaKids ABCs that he must have watched a hundred times.  He memorized every pose within a few days and I eventually had to hide the movie because I was getting so sick of hearing that woman's overly soothing voice sing the alphabet song.   But to this day, he remembers a lot of the poses from that video that I can add to our morning practice and he knows exactly what I am talking about!

As of today, we do Yoga every morning at 8:45 to kick off our "Morning Work" block of instruction.  I used to have it at the end of this segment of time, but it seemed more logical to start off our school day with a calming and focused activity.  We follow up our yoga time with a Bible devotion and then do some outloud reading before finishing up with some quick "Daily Math" and handwriting practice.  All these activities are meant to kick start his brain and body so he is ready for the rest of the day.  It takes us about 45 min to do everything.

Here is our current yoga routine in both pictures and words, I think he really enjoys it and I can tell that he is getting better everyday!

We begin with Jackson setting up both our mats

The first series of poses we do are called "Sun Salutations" and they include the Downward Dog

Each Sun Salutation includes poses like the Warrior 2,  Triangle, Side Angle, Twists, Plank, and Updog

The cobra pose is done in the middle of this "Vinyasa" which the style of Yoga that we do.

We end our Sun Salutations with Child's Pose - a favorite of  his!

Next we do some mat work that includes Cat, Cow, Peacock, Table and other fun poses  

We both enjoy rolling our backs out after all this work!

I try to make sure each yoga session includes some stretching because he is pretty inflexible at this point.

I finish each practice with a balancing pose like Tree or Eagle.  He needs to hold it for 30 sec without falling.  This ensures he settles his mind and mouth long enough to focus.  This more than anything helps create calm for him. 

Traditional closing yoga pose, Namaste: May the light in me salute the light in you.

Jackson always puts both our mats away when we are finished.  Such an awesome helper! 

Homeschooling Jackson has opened up so many new and exciting doors for not just his education, but for all his developmental areas.  Yoga provides him with more than just physical exercise, it helps him connect himself to the world in a way that nothing else can.  It provides him with the framework in which to learn and practice being calm and still.  I enjoy listening to his deep breathing, watching him find his center of balance, and seeing him beam with pride when we say Namaste and he knows he has done something challenging and he has done it well.  Then he typically tackles me and knocks me over because he is a young man now, and no longer my little J-man who used to climb under my downward dog all those years ago at Ft. Bragg.  

Follow me on Twitter too:!/hometeachautism