Monthly Archives: May 2012

Using rigidity to my advantage

In late 2008, when SB was 3, he became very good at jigsaw puzzles.  He wanted to do them all the time.  My husband and I were thrilled!  No, we were BEYOND thrilled!  For years, he had spent most of his free time stimming.  Now he wanted to do puzzles every day.  Hooray!  He actually WANTED to do something normal!  Since he didn’t enjoy very many normal activities at this age, I encouraged puzzles with gusto, and bought him dozens of 24-piece puzzles.  About 2 months later, his enthusiasm for puzzles faded, and he didn’t want to do them anymore.  He gradually slipped back into some of his favorite stims more frequently.  I was incredibly disappointed.  I tried new puzzles, harder puzzles, and even easier puzzles, but with no luck.  The activity was definitely fading.

About a year later, I started to teach SB how to play Candy Land.   I used the Activity Time procedure that I outlined in a previous post called, “I’m not an ABA therapist…but I play one on TV.”  Learning how to play a board game was really hard for him, because at first, he just did not understand how to move the man along the path.  I had to start with the most basic of steps and simplify Candy Land as much as possible.  I began by ONLY using the cards with one color square.  I removed from the game all of the cards with two color squares AND all of the cards with candy items on them.  If you normally think Candy Land is boring, try playing it THIS way!  Ugh!!!!  It took a while, but he finally began to understand the concept of how to move the man along the path, so I added the other cards back in.  Once we were using all of the Candy Land cards and playing a game successfully, I moved on to Chutes and Ladders.  Since the “move the man along the path” concept was the same, and he has always loved numbers, he caught on to this game much more easily.  Hi-Ho Cherry-O was next.  By the spring of 2010, he wanted to play board games all of the time.  Again, we were thrilled!  Not only was he filling his free time with a normal activity, but he was doing it WITH another person!  Here was the first activity that he enjoyed that he could actually do with another child.  Maybe we could finally have play dates!  But again, the excitement of board games faded after a few months, and he stopped wanting to play them. 

I finally realized how to keep these things, and other things, in SB’s rotation all of the time.  I had to actually schedule them into his day using his picture schedule.  Back when he was 3, I had built him a picture schedule that hung on the wall in our kitchen.  The original reason I created it was that he did not seem to understand the difference between a weekday and a weekend.  Some Saturdays he would cry when I told him he was not going to preschool.  Sometimes on weekdays he would cry when I told him he WAS going to preschool.  He certainly did not understand the words “yesterday,” “today,” or “tomorrow.”  Every morning started with a frustrating tantrum of some sort, because the day never seemed to hold what he thought it was going to.  Since he couldn’t read yet, his schedule could not contain words, so it had to be made entirely of pictures.  I used “PECS,” which stands for Picture Exchange Communication System.  This communication system was developed for children who are nonverbal or with limited verbal skills, and is used in special education classrooms all over the country.  I found hundreds of picture cards that were easy to print for free at  I also used photographs of people he was going to see, like his daycare provider or therapist.  And sometimes, if I couldn’t find the right picture card to use, I drew one of my own.  Thankfully, he was not critical of my lousy drawing skills!  A typical day for him looked like this:

When I first introduced the picture schedule, it contained only one day at a time, because that’s all the information he could handle.  We talked through it each morning and each evening.  When I finally felt that he understood what all the pictures meant, I put up 3 days at a time, like this:

Every morning and every evening we looked at the schedule together and discussed yesterday, today, and tomorrow.  After several months, when I finally felt like he understood all of that, I began to put up a whole week at a time.  That looked like this:

By 2009, SB was a pro at following his picture schedule.  He understood the days of the week, he understood yesterday, today, and tomorrow, and he also understood when something unusual or different was going to happen in his week.  This gave him the opportunity to look forward to future events, such as birthday parties or visits with relatives.  Before he began using this picture schedule, there was no way he was able to understand something like, “Grammy and Grandpa are coming to visit on Saturday!”  The schedule also helped me to prepare him for things that he was not going to like at all, such as doctor appointments.  SB had SEVERE anxiety about going to the doctor, and I always dreaded taking him because I knew the day would be full of crying, fits, and frustration.  (Doctor anxiety is a post for another day.)  When he knew about a doctor visit several days in advance, it seemed to ease his anxiety a little bit, at least until we got there and the nurses began touching him.  He checked his picture schedule every day, and seemed to love knowing what was coming up in his week.  Don’t we all like to know what to expect in our week?

But back to the point of this essay.  One day sometime in 2010, I thought about how sad I was that SB had stopped playing board games.  I couldn’t seem to interest him in any games, not even the full-of-numbers Chutes and Ladders that had been his favorite thing to do for months.  Any suggestion by me to play a board game was met with screaming and defiance.  Then I had an idea – would he play a board game with me if his picture schedule told him to?  After “School,” “Home,” and “Dinner,” if the schedule said to play a game, would he do it, simply because it was on the schedule?  I decided to find out.  I drew a picture card with a game spinner on it, and called it “Family Game Night.”  I placed the card on Thursday after “Dinner.”  I didn’t ask him if he wanted to play a game, I just matter-of-factly told him that it was Family Game Night, and that we were all going to play a game together.  Then I instructed him to go choose a game, expecting a full-out tantrum.  He ran into the living room, went straight to the shelves where we keep the games, and returned with the Chutes and Ladders box. 

SCORE!  It worked!  I wish I could remember who won the game that night, but I don’t.

Every Thursday became Family Game Night.  Soon after that, every Friday night became “Puzzle Night.”  I drew a picture of a puzzle piece on a blank card and put it on the schedule.  Even though the card looks ridiculous because I can’t draw at all, he actually began doing jigsaw puzzles again, if only once a week.  I was proud of my idea and how it was working to keep these positive activities in my son’s rotation even after he seemed to get bored of them.  My mind started to form more evil plans.  What else could I get SB to do?

Both of my boys HATE art projects.  Crayons, markers, glue, scissors, stickers, glitter, paint, etc, etc, etc.  They despise it all.  Being somewhat of a girly girl, I find this very disappointing.  I like art projects!  I remember coloring for hours with my mom when I was a little girl, and cutting out magazine pictures and gluing them to paper.  But, alas, coloring and cutting with my children was just not meant to be.  Or was it?  One day I placed an “Art” card on the schedule on Saturday morning.  SB noticed it on Monday, and I could tell he was suspicious.  He just stared at the card for several minutes.  “Saturday we are going to do art,” I told him.  “What art?” he asked.  “We are going to finger paint,” I said.  “How many minutes?” he asked.  I told him ten minutes.  He gave me a dirty look that said, “I don’t trust you,” but didn’t ask any more questions about it. 

By the time Saturday morning rolled around, SB was ready and willing to do an art project.  I couldn’t believe it!  Giving him several days to think about it and prepare for it really worked!  At this point, AB was so little that he wanted to do whatever his big brother was doing, so it wasn’t hard to convince him to participate, too.  Both boys sat at the table, wearing some of my old college marching band T-shirts as paint smocks.  (I think at least one of the T-shirts had some profanity on it.  Don’t judge me.)  I gave them big pieces of paper and squirted a blob of paint onto the paper.  AB dug right in and got himself good and messy in the blink of an eye.  SB was more tentative, using just one finger at first, not wanting to get dirty.  But with a little encouragement, he soon had paint all over the paper.  “Was that 10 minutes?” he asked.  I hadn’t even been watching the clock, but I figured it was close enough.  I let him get down and wash his hands.  It may have only been 10 minutes (or even less) but he had done an art project with me without a fight or a tantrum.  That was a success in my book.

So the Burts family plays a board game (or now sometimes a Wii game) every Thursday, does jigsaw puzzles every Friday, and does an art project every Saturday morning.  (Well, every Saturday that I have planned something and get up in time to get it ready.)  Maybe we’re not as spontaneous as other families, but having family traditions is kind of nice.  And occasionally, when we’re feeling a little crazy here at the Burts house, we just might play Chutes and Ladders when it’s NOT Thursday!

SB’s strengths

I have been in kind of a funk lately.  I don’t know exactly why.  Work, kids, autism (duh!), the weather, a sore throat, the alignment of the planets…who knows?  To make myself feel better, I decided to write a post about all of SB’s strengths.  He has a lot of strengths, and sometimes it’s really easy to forget about them.  We spend an awful lot of our days focusing on the things that he needs to improve.  There are so many behavioral issues, language issues, social issues, and OH MY GOD the toileting issues!  Some days it seems like all I do is correct him, scold him, make him do his homework, and then make him erase it and do it again.  So here are the things that my little autistic first grader has going for him:

1. A sense of direction far better than his mother

If you know me, you know that I have a terrible sense of direction.  It’s laughable, actually, how easily I can get lost while driving on a road, walking inside a building, and even coming back from the bathroom in a restaurant.  It’s a part of my brain that just doesn’t function properly.  Sometimes I wonder if I have my own learning disability in this area.  Anyway, I have learned to compensate for it by using a GPS, studying maps before I go somewhere new, making mental notes of which way to turn by using landmarks (when you exit the bathroom, turn TOWARDS the framed picture of the bear), and sometimes, just learning to laugh at myself and say, “Oops!  Wrong way!” 

My oldest child started displaying a sense of direction before he could even use sentences.  One afternoon when he was 3, we were driving to his ABA therapy session at an office in Falls Church, Virginia.  I was on the I-495 beltway and needed to exit on US-29.  We were speeding along just fine when suddenly, SB started to cry.  “See Lee!  See Lee!” he screamed.  Lee was his therapist.  Of course we were going to see her, and I had told him that.  What on earth was he crying about?  Then I realized that, as usual, my mind had been wandering, and I had completely driven past the exit that I needed to take.  I was really shocked at SB’s quick reaction.  With such limited language at this point in his life, we really didn’t know how much he understood.  This was one of the early indicators that he did, indeed, understand what was happening around him.

Today, at age 7, he still surprises me with his sense of direction.  Every day in the van he tells me which way we are going to turn to get wherever we are going at almost every intersection.  (No, that never gets annoying AT ALL!)  Just a few weeks ago, I took him and his younger brother to a Saturday morning event called “Touch-a-Truck” at the Fairfax County Government Center.  The parking lot was full of construction trucks, fire trucks, garbage trucks, and other big trucks that kids were encouraged to climb all over.   Super cool fun for hyper little boys!  The area around the government center, however, is under construction and completely confusing.  As we were leaving, I decided that I didn’t trust my instincts (which I know to be terrible) to help me reverse what I had done we when had arrived, so I turned on the GPS and decided to trust whatever it said.  (Sometimes I find this terrifying.)  The GPS directions dumped me onto the parkway and right away I found myself sitting at a red light behind a LONG line of cars.  SB started to cry and whine, “But I don’t wanna go back to Touch-a-Truck!  I wanna go home!!!!!”  “We ARE going home!” I assured him, feeling confused by this outbreak.  “No!” he screamed.  “We’re going back to Touch-a-Truck!”  As the light turned green and I started to move forward, my GPS said, “Make a U-turn at the light.”  Oh.  I guess we WERE headed the wrong way.  SB knew it first.  My GPS knew it second.  And me?  Well, I’m always the last to know.

2. A memory so good it’s eerie

SB loves to talk about dates, and REALLY loves to talk about birthdays.  When he meets someone new, he usually wants to know their birthday.  Everybody has one, and most people don’t mind sharing it.  (Some people don’t care to share the year they were born, but that’s ok.)  I can’t tell you how many times the first thing he has said to me in the morning is something like, “Hey Mommy!  It’s Ms. Smith’s birthday today!”  Since he has always been an early riser, this usually happens somewhere between 5:30-6:00 am.  Since I am NOT a morning person, I usually can’t even remember my own name at that hour, let alone who might be having a birthday.  Honestly, I’m often not sure who he is talking about.  It could be a teacher from school, it could be someone from our church, or it could be someone he met once that I don’t even know.  But he loves to remember other people’s birthdays.  Sometimes, if I DO know the birthday boy or girl, he asks me to call them on the phone so that he can play “Happy Birthday” for them on the piano, which is pretty darn sweet.  In addition to birthdays, he also likes to memorize the dates when he or his brother went to the dentist, when our family went on any sort of trip, and when I fixed foods for dinner that he really hated.

If SB already knows your birthday, the next piece of information he likes to learn about you and memorize is your house number.  Not your full address – he doesn’t care about what street you live on.  He just wants to know the number on your house.  This is useful when we are going to someone’s house that we haven’t been to in a while.  “We’re going to Billy’s house today.  What was his house number again?”  “3754.”  “Got it!  Thanks.”

Another cool trick is that when SB is with me, I don’t ever have to remember where I parked my car in a large lot or garage.  If there is a number or letter marking the spot, he will remember it.  For a year or more.  After his one seizure, we made 4 separate trips to Walter Reed National Medical Center in Washington, DC to see a pediatric neurologist.  A year later, he could still tell me the dates of each of those appointments, and the letter and number marking where I had parked the car in the garage on each date.

3. An aptitude for music

This really isn’t shocking, since both of his parents are professional musicians.  But some of the things he can do really blow me away.  For starters, his pitch has always been good.  Many children with autism can sing before they can speak.  SB was able to sing whole songs that he had only listened to once or twice before he could speak in complete sentences.  And his pitch was always spot-on. 

When he was 4, SB’s preschool teacher called me one day to say, “Did you know that he can identify the instruments he’s hearing in a song the first time he listens to a CD?”  She was floored!  Of course I knew this, and hadn’t given it much thought.  I guess I didn’t realize that it wasn’t normal.  (Since both of my kids are on the autism spectrum, I have a hard time identifying what is “normal” and what isn’t.)  SB has been listening to his parents play instruments and attending Air Force Band concerts his entire life.  Heck, he was hearing daily clarinet playing while still in the womb!  It wasn’t all that surprising to me that he could identify a flute, trombone, guitar, violin, and tuba while listening to children’s CDs.  But knowing that his preschool teacher thought it was incredible was pretty cool.

My parents gave SB an electric keyboard for Christmas one year.  Like a lot of gifts, he didn’t take to it right away, but it soon became his very FAVORITE thing to play with, and still is.  I taught him to play a few tunes by memory, but he doesn’t really know how to read music.  In fact, most of the time he plays with it, he is just randomly pushing buttons and pushing keys, and for the longest time my husband and I just assumed that he was using it to stim like he does with so many other toys.  And he really is stimming a lot of the time he is using the piano.  But after a while, we started to realize that sometimes he was playing real chords.  And then later, he started to TALK about the chords.  “Hey Mommy!  My favorite chord is g diminished 7th!”  “That’s nice, sweetie.  Wait….what?!?!?!”  It turns out that the keyboard has a display, and when you play a group of notes, the display shows you which notes you are playing on a staff, and also tells you what chord, if any, that you are playing.  We had no idea he was doing it, but SB has been teaching himself chords.  Major chords, minor chords, 6th chords, 7th chords, flat 9 chords…you name it.  He is 7 years old, and he is teaching himself music theory that I didn’t understand until I was a music major in college.  I can even quiz him.  I can say, “Play me an F major chord.  Now play me a d minor chord.  Now do a c diminished 7th chord.”  And he can do it.  His knowledge and understanding of music theory has many holes in it, however, and whenever I try to jump in and teach him some basics, he pushes me away.  He wants to play HIS way.  And I don’t want to dampen his enthusiasm for music, so I haven’t pressed the issue too hard.  But maybe this summer, when there is no homework to tackle, his Mommy may give him a crash course in music theory!

4.  An aptitude for numbers and math

Many people with autism are good at math, science, and computers, so this isn’t all that shocking, either.  But it’s still neat.  At age 4, SB could do simple addition problems, like 4+2=6, so I decided to push him a little bit.  I got out a big bag of Goldfish crackers (his very favorite snack) and introduced subtraction.  I called it “take-away,” and I just laid out the crackers on the table.  “If you have 6 Goldfish crackers, and you take-away 2, how many do you have left?”  I let him eat the 2.  He had 4 left.  I drew the math problem on a piece of paper.  He understood how to do subtraction problems in less than 10 minutes. 

Both boys like to draw with sidewalk chalk on our driveway.  SB usually draws lots of curvy roads that dead end.  Then he draws a dead end sign at the dead end, and then jumps up and down excitedly about his dead end.  Yes, he is perseverating (stimming) on dead ends.  Sometimes I try to redirect him to draw something more useful and appropriate, and sometimes I am just too damn tired.  One summer day when he was 5, and on a day that I apparently had a lot of energy, I encouraged him to do some math problems on the driveway.  He did a couple of simple ones like this: 5+2=7, 3+8=11.  Then, I got inspired, and I drew 23+49.  (But I drew them in columns, which I can’t do here in this format.)  He answered 612.  I saw where his brain had gone: 3+9=12, and 2+4=6.  612.  So I showed him how to carry the 1.  23+49=72.  Immediately, he started drawing math problems that required carrying all over the driveway.  Carrying was fun!  And even more exciting was that he would tell me BEFORE writing the problem, “Hey Mommy!  This one will need carrying,” or “Hey Mommy!  This one will NOT need carrying!”  And he was always right.  (As you can probably tell, pretty much all of our conversations these days start with “Hey Mommy!”)  Our driveway was covered in numbers, and his understanding of math had just skyrocketed.  And it really wasn’t even that hard for me to teach him.  He just sort of “got” it.

One of his current favorite DVDs is called “Multiplication Rap.”  It’s just that – over 45 minutes of cartoon characters rapping about multiplication.  His very favorite section is where they “skip count.”  You hear in a rhythmic voice, “2…4…6…8…” to a funky rap beat.  Next is, “3…6…9…”  And then it skip counts by 4s, then 5s, and all the way through 12s.  SB can recite along with every word.

Just to show you how much and how often his brain thinks about numbers, here is a picture of some of his work from kindergarten.  He was supposed to turn his worksheet over when he was finished and draw a picture.  This is what he drew:



5. A personality that is outgoing, friendly, and charming

SB is very socially awkward.  He has been known to approach someone that he barely knows and blurt out something like, “The lion didn’t want to eat the zebra!”  This usually just confuses whoever he is talking to, since they are missing key pieces of information, such as, “I watched the movie Madagascar last night, and I thought that the lion was going to want to eat the zebra!  But they were actually friends!”  But the truth of the matter is that he TRIES.  He approaches people, he talks to them, and he generally shows an interest in them.  He memorizes their birthday and their house number.  He comments on their clothes or their hair.  (Or sometimes, less socially appropriate things, such as their weight or their lack of hair!)  He’s cute, has a beautiful smile, is very energetic, and people generally find him charming.  (Well, adults generally find him charming.  I think his peers find him a little strange.  The girls seem to turn on the mothering instinct around him and feel the need to help, guide, and take care of him, which is actually pretty cute.)  I don’t think he would ever purposely hurt anyone, and I am extremely thankful that he has never been violent or aggressive towards others.  When he was finishing kindergarten, I heard that there were several first grade teachers at his school who were “fighting” over who could have him in their class!  I also heard that there were several second grade teachers who were already discussing who would get him the next year.  I wanted to pull all of these teachers aside and say, “Are you SURE?  Do you realize that he’s kind of a lot of work?”  Whenever I have the chance to pick him up at the end of the school day, I’m amused by how long it takes us to get out the door.  He has to stop and talk to EVERYBODY!  All of the staff knows him, and they all seem to genuinely enjoy chatting with him.  It’s very sweet.  His parents, teachers, and therapists are constantly working with him on the intricacies of social interactions, and it is slowly getting better, but I think conversing with others is something that will always be difficult and unnatural for him.  However, I am confident that his outgoing, charming, friendly, and sweet personality will benefit him throughout life, and will hopefully encourage others to give him a pass when it comes to awkward social behavior.

Well, it’s been fun summing up all of the things that SB is good at.  He’s quirky and odd, but he’s also smart and charming, and I love him for it.  But now, it’s back to toileting issues, handwriting issues, personal space issues, loud vocal volume issues, working on reading comprehension, inappropriate classroom behaviors…