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The refrigerator door stood open, as Peter hesitated. He handed me the chicken, then snatched it back and put it into the refrigerator, while handing me the fish. Then it was the leftover rice in the pot with an abrupt switch to the leftover rice in the tupperware box. He finally handed me something he wouldn’t even eat after I microwaved it, but instead ran into the family room. He turned on the TV, then quickly positioned a chair facing the corner, back to the TV. He ran down the hall to his little brother Luke’s room, and returned with one of the boxes Luke stores Pokemon cards in (cards emptied out), and started tapping and turning it. I firmly took the box out of Peter’s hands and hid it under the sofa.

“Peter, slow down! What’s going on?”

Peter’s eyes burned as he reached for the box and gasped, “Bok, bok!” (for “box, box”)

“Ok, calm down. Take a deep breath. That’s it. Come on, tell me what’s going on. So what happened there at the refrigerator? Can you write about it?” As Peter started squeezing my hands, I said, “You will get that box. But first let’s put some brakes on this. Remember, when you have an intense OCD, what does Dr. Gwen tell us we can do to delay it?”

Peter typed, “I can harness this sled dog. I can let myself have the box if I finish.”

I told him that was a great idea. If only he would write down his thoughts about what was going on at the refrigerator, then with the chair, then with the hand squeezing. Knowing he loves poetry, after he finished that, I gave him the challenge of putting it into verse, and adding rhymes. After he completed each stanza, I asked him to rate his OCD intensity as higher, same, or lower. I kept hoping he would say “lower” as writing bided time for us. Unfortunately, he kept saying “Same.” I tried to make the best of it, “Hey, you see, it’s not getting worse!” Here are Peter’s first three stanzas (English sonnet form abab, cdcd, efef).

Give me chicken, no let’s not.

Give me fish, no, another mistake.

First the rice in the box, not it’s the rice in the pot.

OCD picks the one thing I hate.

 

The chair in the corner is where I must sit,

Facing away so I can’t see the TV.

It doesn’t make sense, not even a bit.

No matter, OCD’s punishing me.

 

I’m squeezing your hand to wring out my pain.

Give me the box you put under.

I’m taking deep breaths but still going insane.

OCD rips and tears me asunder.

 

Finally after the third stanza,  I asked Peter to rate his OCD. He typed,

“The box compulsion is surprisingly better,

As I delayed it while writing this letter.”

(That couplet completed the 14 lines of an English sonnet.)

“Wow, Peter!” I exclaimed, look at that! See how strong your creativity is!

Peter typed, “Strong enough to resist a 5/5 compulsion.” All lit up, he said with a big smile and gesture, “Bok, peez!”

“At this point, you have definitely earned that box several times over. But I want to know what you, Peter Tran, upper brain, really want to do now. Because OCD has been bossing you around all night and made you pick something you didn’t like out of the refrigerator and sit in a punishing corner. Wouldn’t you just love to slug OCD back one more time? Why not eat a piece of delicious piece of pizza first for dinner, and then get the box?”

I held my breath. I truly was totally prepared to let Peter take the box from under the sofa. Instead, he did something remarkable. He stood up and slowly walked to the kitchen. At one point he stopped, and started to turn back, but I positioned myself between his body and the sofa. Smilingly I encouraged him, “You are doing great, Peter.”

Peter turned abruptly back to the kitchen and headed through the door.

I’m sharing this story because I want to encourage you kids suffering from OCD and you parents trying to help your children deal with it. It may not be possible to completely change the wiring glitch that causes OCD, but you can build up the attention shifting and compulsion inhibition skills required to achieve a long enough delay for the compulsion wave to wane, and the frontal lobe engagement to move that broken record on a different track. Use deep breathing and the hope of eventually getting to do the compulsion to create some relief from anxiety. Help your child to recognize that it’s the intrusive thoughts of OCD, not his own, that are making him feel he needs to do something that doesn’t make sense. Distract him, help him shift attention away by engaging the upper brain/frontal lobes into an exercise you know he likes (In this case, I know Peter loves to write). Support him to initiate a strategy like delay that you’ve talked about together beforehand, and to self-monitor his state of being so he can watch the intensity of the compulsion fall and be encouraged by his own success. Doing something creative is especially powerful and rewarding because the child can create his own ending to the story; if he pretends to be successful, chances are greater he will become successful by being able to process what’s happening and envision a positive ending. Be transparent in your coaching, and tell your child what you are doing and thinking so that he can understand, want to cooperate with, and imitate it. It’s a goal for him to learn how to talk to himself in the same way. Most importantly, signpost his accomplishment. Be the banner bearer of his success. As Dr. Gwen tells us, the one thing that equips your child best to combat intrusive thoughts is the realization that “I can do this. I do have a choice.” That self concept and self esteem is built through accomplishment. So whatever progress your child makes, whatever small step in the right direction he is able to accomplish, even a baby step, proclaim it and rejoice! Developing emotional regulation is a slow process, but with each victory, another inhibitory or attention shifting synapse is born.

Admonition by Dr. Gwen Palafox, illustrated by Clarissa Kano

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Something quite miraculous occurred in the life of my son.

We had a birthday party.

Not just any party.

A real, bona fide, joyful, fun, everyone-into-it birthday party, with Peter’s teen friends, no less.

I honestly did not know if such a thing was possible. Because all of the kids at the party have autism, and two are nearly nonverbal, with  pretty severe dyspraxia as well. This is how it happened.

It was a warm, sunny day at the park. The kids (I’ll call them “V”, “T”, and “S”) drifted in at different times to our picnic table. A fried chicken and chicken tenders/fries lunch was laid out and the kids and their mothers chatted as they ate. The difference was we used AC (typing) to chat. Peter’s friend V brought him a book for a present so they talked about reading- so cute, when asked who his favorite author is, Peter typed, “I like Beverly Cleary.”

When all four were done with lunch, we gathered around another picnic table upon which we had taped a big long piece of white butcher paper. I had the kids sit in two pairs opposite each other and handed round little squares of different colored sticky note paper. The game rules were simple. Start from your end and lay down different colors of paper (no two in a row alike) toward your partner, but you have to match your partner (so you have to pay attention to your teammate, and incidentally the design turns out symmetrical). First team pair to meet in the middle wins. Then we did it with matching stickers, then with colored design tape cut no longer than an inch (the dyspraxic kids got to use a tape dispenser as an accommodation, but the others had to use scissors). The results were amazing! I couldn’t believe how fast even the dyspraxic kids got going, and the butcher paper was really colorful and pretty at the end. As Peter put it, “It was a fine and energetic game.” We made such a happy hulabaloo that other moms in the park started coming over to see what was going on. Then the kids decorated their initials with opalescent sticker dots between the decorative strips they had created. We cut the paper so each child had a “poster” to home (that could alternatively be used as a book cover or piece of wrapping paper).

Instead of the traditional birthday cake, we set up a “cupcake bar.” Each child got to pick his favorite topping to be the server of (so he could eat up the leftovers). The toppings were healthy- different kinds of cut up fruits, mango, strawberry, and kiwi- and nuts. Each child got a plate with a chocolate cupcake and dollop of whipped cream, and had to select his own toppings by asking the server to put a little, a lot, more, etc. on top. At the end, the group had created a little panoply of colorful custom-made cupcakes together, and sang happy birthday. Peter really got into it and gustily “blew out” a pretend flame on the candle on his cupcake (forgot the matches, and too windy to light a real flame anyway).

By then, it was 2 1/4 hours later, and Peter was saying, “Car-ride, home,” over and over. I thought he had probably had enough, but I knew previously he had hoped we’d do his favorite game, creating a group story together. He had even picked out a topic, “The Perfect Day,” ahead of time. So I quietly asked him, “Peter, have you had enough? We can end now and go home, and do the story another day.” To my surprise, Peter typed back, “No, I want story.”

So here’s how it went. (Each writer’s name is on the left with a colon after it.)

“Peter’s Perfect Day”
Mom: Once upon a time there lived a boy named Peter. He was

V:friendly,

T: smiling,

Luke (Peter’s little brother): smart,

S: (verbally) I like him, I like him! (likable), and

Peter: impressive.
Mom: One day his friend V called up. “Hey Peter I’ve got an idea for something we could do for your birthday. Let’s

V: “lets go sailing in a yacht.”
Mom: But then, T called. “Just a minute, V, I’ve got another call coming in. Hold on while I put you on call-waiting a sec” said Peter.
T said, “Hey Peter I heard it’s your birthday. Let’s

T: “lets go to the beacch”
Mom: Just a minute,” said Peter. I’ve got another call coming in. It was S.
“Hey Peter, let’s

S: (typing) go to the beach. (verbally) July! July!”

Mom: “I wish it was July,” he said, “so the water would be warmer, but at least today…,”
Peter interrupted, “We can all

Peter: “go on V’s yacht!”
Mom: So the four friends did just that,
Peter: and had a great time!

Peter was totally satisfied. All the children wore huge grins. Looking at their faces as they typed, leaning forward, anxious to see what the next would write, with huge smiles and huge reactions- it was truly beautiful. In their imaginations they could do anything, and they were there, sailing on a yacht on a warm, sunny day, together.

I’ve been working pretty hard this year taking a terrific online course on floortime through a fabulous organization called “Profectum” (I highly recommend it, and they have courses for both professionals and parents- the webinars are superb with remarkable, talented teachers showing videos of their work with children to make the process tangible and clear). During the course, I worked with each one of these children individually, so I knew their challenges and capabilities. To me the party was a clear illustration of the magic of floortime, when children receive the support (such as AC, tape dispenser, structure of the games and story template, but also high affect, gestures, and other scaffolding) of their individual differences that they need to express themselves and reveal their beautiful personalities.

Like most magical moments, I didn’t expect it. I took the Profectum class for Peter’s sake, so I’d be better at helping him along in his development. I feel like I got much more than I paid for. True, I spent hours and hours of time in class, listening to lectures, working with children, and viewing hundreds of floortime videoclips. All of this resulted in what I’d hoped for- to get floortime more “in my bones.” But what I received was beyond my expectations- a beautiful gift, to see my child enjoy real friendship with all its richness of joy, laughter, creativity, and shared experience, a blessing from above, a bit of heaven.

 

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Play therapy is just floortime with a specific purpose to work on an emotional issue. In the following example (published here with permission from both the parent and the child), the child is on the withdrawn, compliant side, so it was fortunate that the parent was attuned enough to the child to realize there might have been an issue that needed discussing that had occurred the night before.

This child communicates via typing on his ipad, so the interaction was captured in its entirety.

Sam and his mom had this conversation/play therapy this morning. The previous evening, they didn’t get to Sam’s ILS therapy (listening to altered classical music through headphones to help desensitize a child with sound hypersensitivity; motor exercises are done concurrently to work on sensory integration) until later in the evening. He took a bathroom break, and when they returned to the family room, Dad had turned on the TV. Mom tried to woo Sam into continuing the ILS, but that was not realistic, so she finally said, “I’m not going to waste my time, I’m going to take a shower.” She then set up a bath for Sam, and settled to watch TV. When he finished and came back into the family room, Mom invited him to come watch Frozen with the family, but he said, “Bed!,” pointed to his room, and put himself to bed.

Mom: How come you didn’t watch the new movie with us last night? Frozen was good.
Sam: i was in(side) sad
Mom: Why were you sad?
Sam: because you got mad
Mom: I’m sorry, Sam. I was just frustrated because I didn’t want to fall behind on your ILS schedule, but you got tired and didn’t want to finish the exercises. But I do understand. A person can’t work all the time. So I was hoping you would enjoy the movie with us.
Sam: ok. i hoope you kind(er) next time.
Mom: I deserve that admonishment. I should have gone after you when you went to bed to give you a chance to talk about your point of view about the ILS exercises, and to explain that I really wanted you to enjoy the movie with us.
Sam: ok.
Mom: Were your feelings hurt when I said I didn’t want to waste my time?
Sam: yes.
Mom: I’m very sorry. I could see that you really didn’t want to finish those exercises, and knew it was no use to keep trying to persuade you. That’s what I meant about wasting time. I never feel it’s a waste of time to be with you.
Sam: yes i understnd it was a miscommunication, so youdidn’t mean you very mad
Mom: Let’s do a re-do, ok? I’ll be the wolf, and you be Pooh, Ok?
Sam: ok

(Mom handed Sam a Winnie-the-Pooh stuffed bear, and she put on a wolf puppet.)
Wolf: Pooh, let’s finish your exercises. Let’s roll the ball 20 times.
Pooh: no i’m tired.
Wolf: What about our ILS today?
Pooh: i had enough. stop hurting me.
Wolf: What hurts?
Pooh: i don’t want to listen anymore. it hurts my ears.
Wolf: I’m so sorry. Is it too loud? or is it this particular piece of music? or are you just tired and would rather do it tomorrow?
Pooh: tired.
Wolf: So what do you want to do?
Pooh: let’s stop for now.
Wolf: It must be hard to have to practice listening to uncomfortable sound, even music.
Pooh: yes. it’s not too much trouble if i feel happy,but i’m too tired nnow.
Wolf: I’m so glad you told me. Please keep letting me know, so we can make this work out for you, ok?
Pooh: ok
Wolf: Do I push too hard a lot?
Pooh: i don’t think so.
Wolf: That’s a relief. I wouldn’t want to do that. I want you to learn, but at the pace that feels best for you. Will you tell me when I need to slow down or you need a break?
Pooh: yes i will by tyyyping
Wolf: Would you like to watch Frozen with us?
Pooh: yes
Wolf: That’s great! We really missed you last time. How about tonight?
Pooh: i feel like sausage now
Wolf: Ok, coming right up!

The conversation that preceded the play had already cleared the air in theory, but the symbolic play cleared it in practice. Being able to speak through his stuffed animal freed this gentle and sensitive child to be assertive and actually have the satisfaction of telling “Mom” outright to “stop hurting me,” without having to worry about hurting her feelings. The child got to be in charge of what to do next (“Let’s stop for now”) instead of Mom.

Children often offer more when they feel they are the ones taking the initiative. Sam offered more information about the music “hurting his ears” that Mom had not unearthed in direct conversation. Therefore she was able to express sympathy and understanding about how hard and uncomfortable the ILS was for her son, and probe deeper into the more general issue of how hard she was pushing her son overall. Sam even came up with the seminal plan for how to solve the ILS problem for good by offering the information that it’s only a problem for him when he’s tired, but “it’s not too much trouble if… happy.” Initiative begets more initiative, and Sam ends the conversation by telling Mrs. Wolf that he’s really more interested in breakfast right now than watching a movie with the family.

The mother told me that events later that day confirmed the value of the play therapy. When Sam’s big brother asked him why he didn’t watch the movie with them the previous night, Sam, already emboldened by the earlier encouragement to express his true feelings even negative feelings, went a step further. He replied, “Because I was mad.” (Note now he admits he was mad, as opposed to just sad, and as opposed to Mom being mad.) When asked why, he revealed another as yet undisclosed piece of information, “because I didn’t want ILS and mom said no carride.” He actually said this in front of Mom as she was helping him with his typing. That gave Mom the opportunity to say, “I’m sorry, that was unfair. I should have given you a chance to type before handing down a demand, and you could have told me the ILS was hurting your ears because you were tired.” Shortly afterwards at dinner grace when all the children were giving thanks, Sam’s prayer was to thank God that “I and mom made up.” Later that evening, even though he was getting tired, Sam finished up the last 20 minutes of his ILS session, not in a spirit of anger, but cooperation and perseverance because he also wanted his noise sensitivity to get better.

Don’t feel that play therapy needs to be as direct a re-do as this illustration. Most of the time, therapists set up play scenarios that are much less specific. They observe the child for his favorite toys and stories, and then set up a play scenario using them to introduce a theme of nurturing, aggression, control, or whatever is immediately emotionally relevant to the child. The key element is freedom- to give the child an opportunity to freely express his emotions and act on them in a completely safe environment in which he is encouraged to do so and in which he is handed the control of the action in the play scenario. This gives the child an opportunity to retell his own emotional story obliquely and in as much part as he wishes. Dr. Dan Siegel, author of the outstanding book “The Whole Brain Child,” would probably say that helps the child process his right brain emotional memories with his logical left brain, and bring implicit memories into consciousness so that they don’t have to be acted out later in real life as inexplicably explosive reactions to triggering events that are similar in emotional content.

The recent Profectum conference in Pasadena highlighted the enormous value of symbolic play in both effectively addressing emotional issues and moving development forward. In this illustration, Sam learned how to express his negative feelings in words, came up with the beginnings of a logical solution, and learned how to negotiate and effectively resolve conflict. What a better way to handle anger than allow it to get bottled up inside. As parents of kids with autism, we’ve all seen the self-injury and aggression that can result from anger. We have to give our kids another channel. Make symbolic play a regular part of your interactions with your child, and it will bring you closer, give you a more peaceful home, and most importantly empower your child to not only deal with negative emotions and learn to express it a regulated, organized way, but push his cognitive and emotional development forward.

from fit.webmd.com "Old MacDonald Had a Farm"

from fit.webmd.com “Old MacDonald Had a Farm”

I wish to thank two outstanding child psychologists, Dr. Mona Delahooke and Dr. Connie Lillas, for their inspiring presentations on play therapy at the Profectum conference. Both of them practice locally in the Pasadena and Los Angeles areas.

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How does one do floortime with a teenager? Try a fractured fairytale. That’s a spoof of a classic fairytale that you can create together.

I was trying to get Peter to get up this morning.

We had read the story about Jack in the Beanstalk five days ago.

(Peter didn’t like the story. When I asked him how he liked it, he typed he didn’t like it because “everything Jack did was hard.” When I asked what he meant by “hard”, he typed, “heartless.”)

Anyway, we started out with a game I had been doing with a peer at Teen Buddies, feeding a puppet wolf some toy sausage and eggs. Peter obligingly fed the wolf, and I talked about how Peter’s sausage was hot and ready to eat, but that didn’t work. Peter stayed planted in his cozy bed.

So then I brought Charmander over. “Fee, fie, fo, fum, I smell the blood of an Englishman. Or could it be a Chinese boy?”

Peter ducked under his covers.

Charmander sat by Peter’s side. Mrs. Wolf rushed in, carrying a pan of toy sausage and eggs.

“No, no, no Charmander! You are not smelling a Chinese boy, you are smelling this delicious sausage and eggs I just made for you!”

Peter’s hand obligingly popped out of the covers and fed Charmander the sausage and eggs.

Charmander leaned back and said, “My, my, my! That makes me sleepy! But before I take a nap, bring me my goose that lays the golden eggs!”

As we do not own a stuffed animal goose, Mrs. Wolf came back with Toucan who sat on a pillow.

“Uh, uh!” grunted Toucan. I’m trying to lay something, but I need some food!”

Peter’s hand popped out again and fed the Toucan the same breakfast.

Toucan sighed in contentment, jumped up, and pop! out upon the pillow appeared Peter’s noise cancellation headphones!

Charmander said, “Ah, how nice! But I feel so very sleepy… zzzzz!” and started snoring.

Peter grabbed the headphones

“Quick, now’s your chance to make a run for it, before Charmander wakes up!” cried Mrs. Wolf.

“One minute!” said Peter, and turned over in bed.

But he did get up after that minute, and all on his own.

Later that morning, we had the following conversation:

Mom: Did you recognize the story we adapted this morning?

Peter: Yes, it was Jack and the beanstog.

Mom: Who was the goose that lays the golden eggs?

Peter: Toucan

Mom: Who was Jack?

Peter: (verbally “me” as he typed:) Peter

Mom: What was the golden egg?

Peter: my headphones

Mom (trying to trick him): Wasn’t the wolf a good giant?

Peter: no. the wolf was not the giant. it was Charmander.

Mom: Guess I can’t fool you! Did you like our little drama?

Peter: Yes.

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gardeningPeter and I were waiting for his tutor Jeannette to arrive on a Sunday afternoon. We thought we had 15 minutes, so went into the garden. I had noticed some fluffy white flowers nodding in the sunshine. The Ay cai seeds must be ripe for harvesting. So Peter and I grabbed a paper bag and trekked out to the backyard to have some fun shaking the seeds loose into the bag. Little did I know the adventure in store for us.

We started out picking the white fluffy flowers and shaking them vigorously in the paper bag, a very fun activity that Peter took to right away. Then we just had to pull up the long stems denuded of their fluffy heads. We lugged the heavy garden waste cans, lifted the lids, pulled up the plants, shook the soil off, harvested as many leaves as were still good to eat in a basket, and plunged the despoiled plants into the green recycle cans.

To the left of the Ay cai, were two scraggly cucumber plants heroically producing more cucumbers after a stellar season, on hardly any more than a few remaining yellowed leaves. We snipped off a few for our basket, and saved the yellowed cukes for seed.

To the right of the big patch of Ay cai, was a patch of heirloom string beans. Might there be anything to harvest? Success! We found a handful of young purple beans- I held the stems and Peter gave a big pull. We added them to our basket.

Inspired by our find, we remembered the string bean plants in our front yard planter. Pretty scraggly- definitely time to pull them. So off we went dragging our giant green trash container together to the front. We got into a rhythm. Pull, shake, and dump. Pull, shake, and dump. But what’s this? Peter discovered a number of wrinkled, yellowed string beans plump with their contents. Fascinated, he dissected them open. Then came the magic. A wide grin crept across his face. Aha! He had an idea. Peter eagerly ran to the freshly cleared planting box. Shovel, drop, pat. Tadah! What we had practiced so many hundreds of times before, Peter humoring me, became his own at last. Shovel, drop, pat, over and over till Peter had planted the beans in his hand, then shovel, drop, pat as he completed two rows with more beans he discovered and extracted along the way.

It was a magical afternoon. Jeannette never did show up- we discovered a message on the answering machine later that something had come up. So our 15 minutes had turned into 3 hours of spontaneous, productive “free time,” what had always been problematic for Peter in the past. Instead of restlessly insisting on watching the same Winnie the Pooh video over and over, compulsively tearing paper, or biting his lip when left to choose for himself, Peter had engaged that frontal lobe to joyfully carry out and act upon his own beautiful upper level thoughts. We planted a garden, something new from the old, for a new beginning.

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“What happened to YOU?” exclaimed V, as Christina croaked a hoarse greeting to her. Peter and I were with our buddies at social group, and Christina, our facilitator, was getting over a sore throat.

“Oh, I’ll be ok,” Christina tried to say, but she could barely get the words out.

“Hmm, I wonder how she got that way,” I mused. “Do you suppose, something may be in her throat? I mean, imagine the possibilities. Can you picture it? Just suppose she was in the park, by a lake, and there was this frog…”

“And she was sleeping with her mouth open, and a frog jumped in!” cried V.

“And she woke up, and went to the doctor…” I continued.

“And he took an Xray!” chimed in S.

I grabbed a marker and scribbled a picture of a girl’s neck with a frog sitting in the throat. “Did it look like this?”

“Yeah, that’s the Xray!” exclaimed S. delightedly. “So he sent her to the surgeon.”

“But the surgeon didn’t believe it. So what could she do?”

Peter typed, “She saw another doctor. He should help her.”

“But what if he doesn’t believe her either?” I queried.

“I saw a cartoon where this cat swallowed a bird, and when the cat opened its mouth, it chirped!” giggled N, our movie buff.

“So Christina, open your mouth!” giggled the kids, and Christina obligingly opened her mouth to reply.

“Ribit!” I said, hiding my lips behind cupped hands. “Ribit!”

The teens collapsed in laughter.

“Christina doesn’t really have a frog in her throat, does she?” asked S, our persistent worried questioner.

“Let’s see, S,” I said. “Hey Christina, say something.”

She tried, but was too hoarse (and was laughing too hard) to make a sound.

“Ribit!” I croaked again, covering my mouth, as the kids continued to roll over in glee. “So the doctor believed her, and gave her…”

“An antibiotic!’ cried S.

“How did the frog feel about that?” I wondered aloud.

“He hated it, and jumped out of her throat!” cried V. “Then the doctor caught it, and put it back into the lake at the park.”

“And how did the frog feel about that?” I asked Peter.

“The frog felt good. But Christina felt even better,” typed Peter.

The End

This “Frog Story” by Teen Buddies is an example of the fun we have in social group. Before I started going with Peter, I would never have imagined how delightful it can be to work with teens with autism. I am always amazed at the kids- their enthusiasm, love for fun, and most of all capacity and desire for interaction. Whenever it was Peter’s turn to add to the story, V. and S. waited eagerly to see what he’d come up with. It would take a while, but they were truly interested, and it warmed my heart to see them gathered round, leaning over his iPad to see what he had to say.

Just the day before, Peter had his first experience at “Young Life,” a Christian youth group that meets in the basement of a local church where neurotypical young adults volunteer to hang out and play group games with teens with special needs. Peter and I were overwhelmed with our welcome. Seemed like his entire special day class from school was there, and each kid came up in turn to greet Peter. They were so excited to see him. Two girls sat him between them, and vied to play with his iPad. A nonverbal little classmate Z spied us from across the room and gave us a shy wiggle of his fingers and a big smile. “This is my third time to come, “ said E. “I used to be really nervous, but now I’m just fine!” she confided with a big, comforting smile. Ten minutes later, we found Z standing right behind us. He had made it, across the wide expanse of the crowded room!

That morning, Peter had had a friend over, Sh. I saw him run out of the car up the driveway, jumping and peeking through the narrow pane of window glass next to the front door.  But once I opened the door and let him in, it was a different Sh. The head went down, the eyes averted, and the voice went silent. As Sh’s mother and I chatted, I spied him quietly make his way to the family room. After a couple of minutes I followed, and saw him making funny poses as he watched his reflection in the  dark TV flat screen. “That’s the oompa-loompa dance from ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,’” Sh’s mom whispered. I sidled in and started imitating Sh’s movements. He started to giggle and struck another pose. After imitating that, I suddenly snapped into a stiff salute, a new position. To my delight, Sh copied me. Back and forth, I’d strike a pose, and then he’d strike a pose, and we’d imitated half a dozen of each other’s poses, at an ever increasing pace, till the game was done. “That was fun! Give me five!” Our eyes met, and he gave me a big smile.

I wish I could rewrite the DSM-5 definition of autism. Instead of “deficits in social emotional communication,” I’d like to put, “challenges in word finding, processing and using facial expression and eye gaze, and sensory and anxiety issues that when identified should be accommodated and skills practiced to empower him/her to seek and enjoy the interaction and friendship so deeply desired, though subtly expressed.” Like the teens waiting an eternity for Peter to finish typing, like Z taking ten minutes to cross the crowded room, and like Sh finally wanting to look into my eyes after half a dozen turns of the oompa loompa dance. Because the “deficits” are not a lack of desire. And where there’s a will, there’s a way, or should be, if we can make the effort to blaze a trail.

I hope the hard working parents, friends, families, and professionals who work with kids with autism don’t get discouraged and don’t give up trying to interact. Because I’ve seen enough glimpses to be convinced that in each of our kids there’s a social person, just waiting for someone to help him/her break through.

mmkids-300x245

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Mother’s Day can be a treacherous holiday for moms of children with autism.  Mother’s Day conjures up images of homemade cards, hugs and kisses, and sweet though messy attempts at making a special meal for mom.  Disappointed hopes and expectations can feel very painful.  What can we do?

My neurotypical third grade son has an angel for a teacher.  Every year she gets the children involved in a big project- the third grade Mother’ s Day Tea Party.  A couple weeks before each child writes a letter to his/her mom based on a template, answering questions like “Describe your mom.  What are some of the things you like about her?  What are some of the things she does for you that you’d like to thank her for?  What is your favorite activity together?  What are some of your favorite places?  How do you feel about your mom?”  The teacher uses the opportunity as a writing project with first drafts, edits, and rewrites, during which she can also make sure each child has an acceptable letter for the big day.  The children start practicing a special Mother’s Day song, complete with hand motions and simple dance moves.  They paint a little wooden tray complete with their handprints, which the teacher lacquers as a keepsake for the moms to take home after the party.  A week before, she has the children secretly ask their fathers or other special relative to help them squirrel away a nice teacup or mug for their mother  in their backpacks to take to school.  She has them plan the food and drinks, which she purchases herself out of a voluntary classroom project fund set up at the beginning of the semester.  The children also make invitations to bring home the week before.   The day before the party she cuts a big paper tablecloth for each set of 4 desks she arranges together, and has each child draw something special and cheerful for his/her mother on a quarter over his/her desk, where mom will sit.  The day of the party, the children set the table.  When 11:00 rolls around, the teacher opens the door and all the moms flood into the room as the children all say, “Happy Mother’s Day!”  Then the children give their moms their seats and serve as their waiters and waitresses.  After the tea, each child reads his/her special letter out loud to mom (while the teacher stands by ready with a box of kleenex!).  This is the most beautiful part, the kind of moments you live for, for yourself and also the privilege to witness the special relationship and all the love between each mom and child couple.  Then the children sing their special song.  There is never a dry eye amongst the mothers in the entire room, and some of the children also have tears of joy.

I love this idea.  It is brilliant as a meaningful writing project, executive function and social skills training,  includes the arts (painting, dance, and music), and builds community.  It teaches children how to honor their parent,  to be thankful, and how to show thankfulness.  I especially love this teacher because she conceived of this idea which is like a dream come true for a mom, when she herself is childless.  How did she know exactly what to do, that so hits the spot and touches the heart?  Where does she get the love and grace to do this, when she herself has not been blessed with a child of her own to have this kind of relationship?  Yet her face is all joy when she does this year after year.  She has a beautiful heart, and has brought the love of God to many a grateful third grade mom.  Certainly to this one.

So if you are a special education teacher or father or other close relative or friend of a mom with a child with special needs, please consider adopting some version of this project, with adaptations and accommodations of course.  Take turns- moms can also do a family party like this of sorts for fathers on Father’s Day.  Birthdays and other major holidays are other opportunities to teach this kind of appreciation for each other and learning how to express it, regularly.  It can start with just one part of the project, and grow through the years, along with the ability of the child.  What a lovely way for a child to grow in his/her capacity to love and express it.

I’m sure this kind of formation will take a lot of time and continuous efforts, but that’s what makes it become a part of the child’s character.  And gratitude is such an important virtue to train, as it is most certainly a key to happiness.  It’s so easy to not do this with our special kids because so much of it seems over their heads.  So start simple and little.  The seeds mayhappy-mothers-day grow.

In the meantime, one can always imitate the teacher, her face full of joy as she blessed others and their children while waiting patiently for her own.

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