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Archive for the ‘Playdate Ideas’ Category

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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“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.

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Peter loves to “tinker” with playing the piano and drawing.  He needs a lot of assistance and prompting, but has made some real progress in both.  For piano, despite his fine motor dyspraxia, he has gotten to the point where he can imitate my finger movements doing scales.  We are also working on lighter vs heavier touches (soft vs loud) and legato (more connected notes) vs staccato (brief, sharp key contact with more noncontact between notes).  For drawing, he is moving from connecting dot to dot and tracing to imitation/copying.  I sometimes start a play session with a list of choices for activities such as:
Cooking

Piano

Drawing

Dance

Games

Outside

Not infrequently, he chooses piano or drawing.

One day earlier this month, Peter chose drawing.  First we drew three different animals out of the letter “D”- a happy octopus, sad frog, and mad tiger.  We used a terrific book by Ed Emberley that gives step by step sequential directions on how to make wonderful animals out of simple shapes.  (Emberley, E., 1970, “Drawing book of Animals,” New York: Little, Brown and Co.)  Then we played duets on the piano with Peter playing an alternating C and G with his left hand, and me playing Twinkle Twinkle with my right.  We played it in C minor, loud and deliberately and had Peter guess which animal matched it- then the mad tiger danced to it and pounced on Peter on the last chord.  We played in in C minor again, but softly and slowly- Peter matched that with the sad frog who jumped around to his theme song.  Finally, we played it in C major, lightly and relatively fast.  Peter matched the merry tune to his happy octopus who skipped away at the arpeggio at the end.

We tried this activity on another occasion with different animals- a sad Eeyore, happy butterfly, and angry dragon modeled after stuffed animals we have.  The stuffed animals are great for introducing an element of drama, as they more readily “come alive” for children than pictures.

As your child gets good at this game, add more musical elements to his emotional repertoire.  Peter and I drew a peaceful, quiet caterpillar saying “Sh!” and a loud lion with a spiky mane and sharp temper saying “Rrr!”  Then we played scales soft and legato (smooth) or loud and staccato (sharp) and had Peter match the animal and dance to the music.  Peter did indeed learn staccato vs legato, and we had a couple new “theme” songs to add to his emotional animals guessing game.

If your child does better with more structure, try an attribute game in which you present two or more animals (3-D stuffed or 2-D drawing of) in front of him, and tell him that one is hiding a favorite treat.  He gets the treat if he guesses which animal has it.  Play the “theme” song (happy, mad, or sad) you previously matched with the animal hiding the treat, and let your child name the animal.  To make the game more challenging, you can morph it into an attribute game by including a couple of animals with the same emotional theme song, so that the child has to ask you additional questions to get the right answer.  For example, present a tiger, dragon, and butterfly and play the “mad” song.  To distinguish between the tiger and dragon, prompt your child to ask more questions like what color is the animal, or if it can fly.

This game is great for playdates as the children alternate between being the one to choose the animal to hide the treat with, help you play the theme song, and answer the questions, and the one to guess the animal and get the treat.  Furthermore, if you have the children draw the animals, you can have them select different animals to draw out of the same starting shape (such as the letter “D” as described above), and learn the fun of perspective taking as they compare their results.

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Making holiday greeting cards is a great craft activity that can be both meaningful and fun for your child.

For example, for Valentines’ Day, cut out big and little hearts of several different colors.  You can put them in separate piles such as in a egg carton or appetizer tray with divisions, which makes the activity easier, or in one big pile to make it harder (I put them in a heart shaped glass bowl).  Get a large piece of white construction or drawing paper and fold it in half lengthwise.

Then say, “Let’s play follow the leader!”  Start at one end and your child from the opposite and create a pattern of hearts such as pink, pink, red, pink, pink, red (easier, especially if you cut all the hearts the same size) or big red, big pink, little pink, big red, big pink, little pink (harder).  You can have your child start out by imitating you one heart at a time, then copy a whole unit of the repeating pattern, then finish or continue the pattern on his/her own until you meet at the middle.  You can lay your heart patterns in straight lines, diagonally, in zigzags, or circles.  Take turns being the leader and follower.  Either way, you’ll end up with a symmetrical design that you’ve created together.

Have your child help you write the message, or trace over your letters with different colors.  Have your child deliver and present his new creation to his special Valentine with a hug and a high five!

For Easter cards, you might cut out bunnies in different poses and colors to line up for a big carrot in the middle of the card that Mama bunny is holding and waiting to serve.  For Christmas, cut the card in the shape of a giant Christmas tree, and make your symmetrical patterns the decorations, strings of colored lights, or garlands of popcorn and cranberry patterns.  Your child learns attending to multiple attributes, visual imitation, and cooperative co-creation while absorbing and enjoying the festive imagery of the season.

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Yesterday was one of those crisp, bright autumn days when you feel like harvesting your garden and putting on a big pot of soup.

So when Peter’s friend Mark came over to play, that’s what we did.

As soon as he stepped in through the door, Mark wanted to go back outside.  Gorgeous day, clear blue skies, of course!  So we did.  Peter and I showed him and his sister Lizzy our little kitchen garden, which we planted right outside our front door.  May not be the most elegant place to plant a vegetable garden, with corn stalks lining the path and pumpkin patch instead of decorative flowers (though we have roses too!), but that way Peter and I can work on our garden as we go in and out the door.  It doesn’t have to be an “event” just to get our shoes on and trek out to the back.

The garden is it’s own advertisement.  It drew Peter’s little brother Luke out of the house away from his computer games.  He came running out, eager to join the harvest.  We had a contest of sibling teams to see who could find all three baby pumpkins first.  I had Peter take a picture on my iphone of each pumpkin to be sure he really was spotting the pumpkins Luke would hastily point out.  Mark and Lizzy won and got to have first picks of which carrots to pull out of the ground.   We had a similar contest with finding ears of corn to harvest.  Luke luckily has been carrying around his foam sword which was part of his knight Halloween costume.  Luke used it to whack leaves out of the way, and it came in handy as a pointer for Peter.  The kids paired off to pick the string beans together.  Lizzy would hold the stem while Mark plucked and handed beans to his dad who would place them in his pocket.  Lizzy thought the red Swiss chard looked pretty neat, so we harvested some for her mom.

Back in the kitchen, we baked pumpkin bread, practicing cooperative egg cracking (even squeamish kids can whack the egg with the dull end of a knife if the parent will then dispose of the eggshells), “close your eyes and guess which whiff is the cinnamon,” and decorating pumpkin muffins individually for each member of the family (“I wonder which toppings your dad would like?”  “Look, Mark, Lizzy’s pointing to the dried fruit.  Do you think she wants some of that on her cupcake?”  I had Peter play the game nonverbally, so he’d have to attend to which toppings I pointed to with just my eyes.)  The kids played “Chutes and Ladders” and read a book about seed to pumpkin while they baked.  Mark took dad’s right hand, and Lizzy his left, and they frosted chocolate cupcakes as a three headed unit, with Mark therefore only having the use of his right hand and Lizzy her left.  Before you knew it, the bell went off on the oven, and we had cheery pumpkin muffins to pack off as well as fresh vegetables to show mom.

As our guests left, passing through the garden again to get to their car, I felt the warm glow of autumn inside and out.  The only thing better than having a fall garden to harvest is to have friends to share it with.  I had to ask for it, but I even got big hugs from my little friends.  Real hugs with big smiles! I felt like I made off like a bandit.

I went back into the house and put on a big pot of soup.

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