Wednesday, December 23, 2009

C1 as the Focus Child for START

Photo: C1 can be a willing worker, though it has to be his choice. Sometimes, as in the case with the raking, his willingness to work doesn't last very long.

As I mentioned before, my oldest son who has Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), was chosen as a focus child for his school for the START training program that started in September and will conclude in March or April (depending on winter weather). One child with ASD per school was chosen to be the focus child.

I'm not sure about the other focus children in the START program, but I can say my son was chosen for a particular reason. C1 hasn't been the easiest child to educate over the years, and this has been especially true since about last Spring. We did have a grace period in September when school started up this fall. At one point he told my husband and I that he loves school and that it was the favorite part of his day. (I believe he was happy to have some structure after summer break concluded.)

Around mid-October my son had a complete attitude change about school. All of a sudden he "hated it" and started to flat out refuse to do work. My husband and I were both called in to help out on the worst of days.

We have several theories as to why C1 started to hate school, but cannot be really certain what caused such a complete attitude change. It could have been that the novelty of the new school year wore off. It could be that he was reacting to the weather change that came about mid to late fall. Or it could be the stomach irritating bactrim we were giving him for a kidney condition and have since discontinued.

It's hard to tell. All we know for sure is that his refusal to do his work became our number one concern in October. His behavior escalated to the point he started to tear the room up when challenged.

Thank goodness for START or we be could very well be in the middle of a nightmare right now in terms of school. Fortunately, around the time his behavior started to deteriorate, the START trainers presented a module on Educational Strategies.

We learned how to use breaks, special interests, and gadgets such as the P-touch (for typing up work instead of writing) to inspire a child to comply in the educational setting. C1's teacher, who has worked so hard to help him, created a froggy basket (my guy is all about the froggies) for him to dig into during breaks, gave him the P-touch we received at the end of the module training, and put a bean bag chair by his desk.

The good news is that my son stopped being disruptive in the classroom as soon as his teacher put some of the strategies in place. The bad news is that despite liking the P-touch, he still refused to do work for several weeks in small group settings. He ended up spending a lot of time in the bean bag chair.

We've since had Module 3 which focused on Behavior and learned even more things (which I hope to discuss in a future post). Further, my son's special ed teacher, also was able to have the behavior consultant for our special education district come and observe my son. The behavior consultant was also able to provide very good ideas during a team meeting I was invited to attend.

Ironically, my son did his all his work with very little intervention the second day the behavior consultant observed. It might be that my holiday loving son knew he was being watched or it might be that he was just excited that Christmas break was just around the corner as there were only two more days to go at that point. Whatever the case, I hope C1 will continue to be a willing and compliant student once school starts up in January. My fingers are crossed!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

START: Viewing Students with ASD Positively

The thing I love about the intensive START training (that I'm in the midst of right now) is that the program is designed to get participants to think positively about students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). I found it to be a good sign when I saw that Paula Kluth's book You're Going to Love this Kid was on their reading list. (START is run out of Grand Valley State University. The trainers pointed out that all their readings were carefully selected.)

I haven't read this particular book, but I love the title and hope to read it someday. I have, however, read another book by Kluth and really appreciated it. The trainers at START mentioned that one too. The title is Just Give Him the Whale, which I blogged about (see post here) previously. That book is about working with the student's special interest in order to encourage productivity in the classroom setting.

I was grateful for the attitude of the START trainers and the fact that they included these readings along with general information about autism and Asperger Syndrome. I'll admit that working with people (as a parent I'm thinking about my own child) on the spectrum can be baffling and overwhelming at times. There are often little and big problems that come up during the school years.

Part of the stress comes from the fact that even verbal students with ASD have a hard time communicating about what it is that is bothering them. This can make solving a behavior-related problem very difficult. Even though my own son with autism/PDDNOS is conversational, it sometimes takes awhile to get to the root of an issue.

Sometimes problems are really easy to solve once understood. In one case (that I learned about during training) a nonverbal girl refused to go out to recess because her visual field had been changed. Her mother figured out the problem immediately when she saw that the mats in front of the door leading to the playground had been thrown out of alignment. Once the mats were aligned (a visual field issue), the child went outside for recess without any difficulties.

Despite the difficulties, however, students with ASD are worth getting to know as people. Many of them do have the ability to make their educators and therapists smile by sharing their unique view of the world. Sometimes the students (and not just the children with Asperger Syndrome) have talents than can astound people. My own son is a navigational expert. I've been known to miss exits on long distance trips. Usually my guy figures out my mistake before I do as he notices immediately when I've messed up. (I try to reminder things like that when facing confounding situations with my son.)

So I think START is right on track when they tell educators and therapist to use those special interests and to take time to get know the student with ASD. A positive attitude when working with children with ASD is essential to being an effective educator, administrator, therapist or parent.

As a parent, I'll admit it's not always easy to work with a child when he or she engages in meltdowns or inappropriate behaviors. We (participants) were told not to take meltdowns/behaviors personally and to make sure we don't allow our own frustration to add to the difficulty of the situation. I realize it is sometimes difficult to do that, but once a child is understood (and appreciated), it makes the extra effort all the more worthwhile when a problem is solved.

Note: Posts about my own 'focus child', educational strategies, and problem solving are coming up soon.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Autistic Student and the Importance of Teamwork in Problem Solving

Image: C2 holds a sign that I received at START training. It says "Saying this will not work is NOT an option." The sign was meant to remind school teams that they should consider all ideas while attempting to problem solve.

The teams that are built to support any student with an Individualized Educational Plan can be large. The size of the team depends on the needs of the student. My child's team that attends START includes me, his special education teacher, his general education teacher, his principal, his occupational therapist, and his speech therapist. He also has a social worker and a physical therapist.

I'm fortunate that I have a team that gets along well, but I know that we all have heard stories where this isn't always the case. There can be personality conflicts or conflicting ideas of what should happen. Or, even if everyone gets along, a meeting can be run so inefficiently that nothing is accomplished. Hence, it is in the best interest of everyone that meetings go smoothing in order to identify and solve problems interfering with the student's learning process and accomplishment of goals.

That is why we were trained immediately in Meeting Mechanics, which was a primary focus for Module 1. We learned problem identification, problem specification, brainstorming, clustering/prioritizing, identifying implementation variables, and assigning responsibilities.

We were taught to perceive all team members as equal regardless of position and that "all ideas are good ideas" (well at least until they are fully deliberated by the team. The "all ideas are good ideas" rule is meant to give everyone a chance to present their ideas to the team without feeling intimidated. We were also taught to avoid sidebar conversations, which are little conversations in the group that doesn't include everyone.

I realize this post doesn't fully cover or explain the notion of Meeting Mechanics, but what I do want to point out is that this system does seem like an efficient and fair way to run meetings. I believe that all teams working to support a student with autism should be trained in this or something similar to make sure that the student's needs are addressed. So far, I am impressed.