Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Growing Up with Sensory Differences


              My son is getting older.  He reminds me of this every day.  Lately he’s in a big hurry to become an adult.  He wants to make a ton of money, move to New York City and live on the penthouse suite (because it's the highest part of the building).  He has great ambitions.  He wants to be an architect and design big buildings (specifically the tallest buildings in the world).   I’m sure it’s hard for many moms to watch their children grow up.  We know as parents that we have to give our children more freedom and independence, but when your child has sensory differences, it all becomes a bit more complex. 
            Ben is at the stage now where he functions in what I like to call his “sensory comfort zone” for a good deal of the time.  We know what it takes to keep Ben regulated and, more importantly, Ben knows what he needs to do for himself to help himself.  He comes home from school, puts on his music, sits in his game chair, turns on his back massager, and decompresses from the day.  When we go to a big event, like a birthday party, we know to have down time the rest of the weekend.  We've learned a lot through trial and error, so most of our days are smooth sailing...until life throws a curveball.
            Most of us know to look for negative triggers that can cause a meltdown, but it’s easy to overlook a different kind of trigger.  I’ve learned that when Ben is eagerly anticipating an event, this is a time to watch carefully, because if that event doesn’t go exactly the way he envisions in his mind, it can produce a meltdown.  I think he lets his guard down in a way, because he is so excited for this special thing, and when trouble comes it catches him off guard.  It’s almost like he’s offended that something so special and dear to him wouldn’t go the exactly way he expected.  The more excited he is about the event, the larger the potential meltdown.
            I was reminded of this during the last week of school, when I designed a special project for my class called Geometry City.  I’m a teacher and I am blessed to have Ben as one of my students.  If I’m being completely honest, I designed this project with Ben in mind because I knew he’d LOVE it.  The children were to design their own city (measuring perimeter and area to get the math part in) and then they could build their city in 3D.  Ben was stoked.  The excitement built.  Finally the day came when I put out the materials for building.  My classroom was a buzz with children working.  I became involved with helping other children so I didn’t notice the agitation growing in Ben as he tried to make his buildings stay together.  He was attempting to fold cardstock and stack the rectangular prisms higher and higher.  As the building toppled to the ground, he lost it and began talking angrily.   Once I realized that a few soothing words and offers to help weren’t going to do it, I left the class with my assistant and took him into a quiet room.  I had Ben lay on his belly on the floor as I rolled an exercise ball over his back as I was taught to do years ago by an OT.  We talked and I continued applying deep pressure, and eventually he calmed down and we were able to go back in and finish the project.  I kept a closer eye on him for the rest of class and he was able to recover and take direction and support. 
            I want Ben to get to the place where he can be completely independent.  I want him to recognize those triggers in his brain and body and be able to calm himself down.  I have to remind myself of how far he’s come- that he is able to self-regulate for over 90 percent of the time.  This gives me hope that one day he’ll be able to do it without me. 

            Ben has grand plans for his adulthood.  At nine years old he is already building his future up in his mind with great excitement.  I want him to go for his dreams but I also want him to be supported and ready so that he doesn’t crash and burn.  Whatever the future holds, I know that he will always have a support team there to assist him along the way.   In the meantime, I’m trying not to blink and to enjoy him as he is today.

Welcome to Voices of Special Needs Blog Hop -- a monthly gathering of posts from special needs bloggers hosted by The Sensory Spectrum and Mommy Evolution. Click on the links below to read stories from other bloggers about having a special needs kiddo -- from Sensory Processing Disorder to ADHD, from Autism to Dyslexia! 

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

In His Own Time

            I can still remember when I was a new mom, nine years or so ago.  Milestones and schedules were so important to me then.  Before Ben was born, I would read the book “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” and I would study the month by month guides, envisioning my baby crawling at six months, walking at a year, and talking not long after. (Spoiler alert- Ben did none of those things on that time table).  I think that all parents have visions for the way their child’s life will go.  We naturally assume they will learn to tie their shoes, swim in a pool, and learn to ride a bike.  Nine years ago, those activities seemed like a given in my mind.  It never crossed my mind to assume that my child would have difficulty achieving these childhood rites of passage.  It never occurred to me that some of these things might not happen for my kid at all.

            Fast forward nine years into the future.  Fast forward to an older and (hopefully) wiser me.    A few weeks ago Ben rode his bike on his own for the first time.  The old me would have been completely freaked out about the fact that Ben didn’t show the slightest interest in riding a bike until he was nine.  The old me would have looked around when Ben was five at all the kids whizzing around on two wheels and wondering why mine stuck on his tricycle.  However, experience has taught me that Ben will do things when he is ready. 

When Ben was four years old, he rode around the neighborhood on a tiny bike with training wheels.  We spent part of our summer in Indiana, and I will never forget the day that changed Ben’s feelings about bikes forever.   That morning he wanted to ride his bike through the my parent’s neighborhood as he had done every day for the past two weeks.  In his rush to leave that day, he had forgotten his bike helmet.  He set off, slowly picking up speed as he rode down the sidewalk with me trailing behind.  Suddenly, I realized where he was headed and jogged to catch up.  He had never gone that far before.  I watched helplessly from the top of the hill as his bike quickly picked up speed.  Ben's squeals of glee quickly changed to screams of terror.  He flew out of control and landed in the middle of the road, head first.  I raced down the hill but it was too late.  I remember picking gravel out of his hair.  I remember his blood on my hands.  I should have stayed calm- I am always calm, but in that moment I panicked.  I left the bike in the middle of the road and carried him home, yelling for my dad who was mowing the lawn and so he couldn’t hear me.  I think my yelling is what stayed in Ben's mind the most.  He felt my panic and made that panic his own.  Thankfully, Ben didn’t need any stitches but long after the physical scars healed, the psychological damage remained.  A cloud of anxiety hung over bicycles for years after.  We tried encouraging bikes, and Ben would oblige us for very short distances, immediately abandoning the bike as soon as we would let him.  Finally, five years later, Ben rode a tandem bike with his Nana while on vacation and found his confidence again.  A week later he watched his best friend outpace him in the neighborhood as he struggled to keep up on his scooter.  The time had finally come to try the bike again.  At his request, we found Ben a blue bike of his own.  They don’t make bikes his size with training wheels, so he would have to learn to ride and balance with two wheels.  Thirty minutes later, Ben was flying around the neighborhood with no help from either of us.  Ben’s story of learning to ride a bike was wildly different than how imagined bike riding would go for him.  I had visions of little Ben riding around on training wheels until the day came when Dad removed them and worked with him until finally, he sailed off into the sunset.  But the older and wiser me has learned to expect the unexpected.

            Swimming under water was the same.  For years Ben refused to get his face wet in the water.  We tried swimming lessons every summer, even shelling out big bucks for private lessons once, but to no avail.  We tried a “tough love” coach that got him to put his head under, through tears, but Ben would refuse to do it after classes were over.  We tried all kinds of goggles and special gear, from nose plugs to fancy diving masks.  Finally, one summer when he was eight, on a perfectly normal day, Ben decided to go under the water all on his own.  Then, he decided to swim across the pool.  Within an hour he was swimming all over, seeing how deep he could dive.  And he hasn’t looked back since.  

            It was the same with tying his shoes.  Ben showed no interest in tying all through kindergarten, first grade, and second grade.  Finally, his third grade year dawned and Ben decided it was time.   He worked with a buddy at school for a day and now he can tie his shoes like a pro. 

            I tell you these stories of my son to remind you of this.  Don’t get too caught up in the developmental timetables that tell you when your child “should” do something.  It’s important, of course, to pay attention to delays and to keep an eye on progress, but don’t become consumed with your child being different than the other children around him or her.  As one wise blogger mom, Jess, likes to say, “Now is not forever, and never is a load of crap.”  Your child may not achieve that milestone today or even tomorrow, but that doesn’t mean he or she will never get there.  Ben constantly surprises us by what he suddenly decides to do.  If you asked me a month ago if my kid would ever ride a bike, I would have said, “Probably not.”  But today he rides all over the neighborhood.  Never underestimate your child.  Try not to put too much pressure on him or her to do something on your schedule. Let go of the vision of the child you expected to have and focus instead on the amazing child who is right in front of you.  Love your child just as he or she is.  Your child will thank you for it!

Welcome to the Voices of Special Needs Blog Hop — a monthly gathering of posts from bloggers hosted by The Sensory Spectrum and The Jenny Evolution. Click on the links below to read stories from other bloggers about what it’s like to have child or student with special needs.  Want to join us for next month's Voices of Special Needs hop?  Click here!  

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

A Conversation on a Summer Evening

Ben colored this picture of a girl reading a book on his online coloring app.  

It’s a hot summer evening in Florida.  It’s the first non-rainy day in over a week, so my husband hurries home from work to mow the lawn.  I’ll do work all over the house, but if you know me well, you know that I don’t do lawns.  On this particular evening, I clear the dinner dishes away and settle down in my armchair to read.  Ben sidles over with his Ipad and snuggles next to me, as he loves to do.  I give him a side hug/squeeze and he cuddles closer.  At eight years old he’s getting almost too big to fit next to me in the armchair, and we joke about this fact almost daily.

            The lawnmower rumbles in the background.  Ben instinctively begins streaming music on his radio to muffle the sound and returns to his coloring app.  He’s working on a present for his Papa who he will visit soon.  He’s concentrating on his work and though the music relaxes him, he reminds me not to sing along.  My singing tickles his back.  After awhile, the mowing sound stops and we hear a sudden squeak from next door.  I recognize it as the sound of someone cranking the spigot of the garden hose.  Ben instinctively yelps, and I suggest he get his noise cancelling headsets.  He jumps up, puts them on, and returns to his work.   A while later, he asks me if the noise has stopped, and I tell him that it has.  He takes off the headsets but keeps them close by.  He’s finished his picture now and shows it to me proudly.  I assure him that his Papa will love it. 

            Ben moves on to his K’Nex, which are a type of building set with various plastic parts that can be assembled to create as many things as a person’s imagination will allow.  Tonight Ben assembles his own fidget device.  He now has three fidget spinners (one black, one blue, and one glow-in-the dark), along with a fidget cube.  In his upstairs playroom he has a huge assortment of squishy balls and items that were his fidgets long before the spinner craze took the world by storm.  Ben puts two K’Nex sticks together and joins them with a middle piece.  He flips the piece back and forth in his hand.  “This is my fidget calmer,” he tells me.  “It makes me feel calm.  I can use it when I’m getting too excited, like I’ll feel when I see my Nana and Papa after the airplane.”  “Here, try it,” he tells me.  “Does it make you feel calm?” he asks.  I start spinning it in my hand, but then he redirects me to try it differently.  I try it his way, and the rhythmic motions are surprisingly soothing.  “Yes,” I tell him, “It does make me feel calm.”  He then proceeds to make four more fidget calmers, in sizes ranging from small to x-large.  He hands the x-large to his Dad to try as he comes in from his mowing.

            I used to spend a lot of time and energy worrying about whether my kid would be able to function in this world.  Through his early years, I was his anchor, who helped calm the storm of his meltdown.  I had to be the strong one- I had to give him the words to help him cope.  But now, at eight, he is showing me that he is becoming more and more capable of his own self-regulation.  He is listening to cues within his own body and using the tools to help himself cope.  He’s even anticipating his own needs and finding solutions to future problems, as he did when he created the fidget calmer for our upcoming trip.

            Ben snuggles next to me again on the armchair, flipping his fidget calmer while I return to my book.  “When I was born, did you know I was on the spectrum?” he asks.  When he asks me questions that seem out of the blue, I’ve learned that they are never as random as they may seem at first glance.  Still, I usually need a moment to come up with my response.  “No, I didn’t find out that you were on the spectrum until you were four years old,” I tell him.  “But what I did know when you were born was that I love you, and I love you now more than ever.”  I try to push the conversation forward to tell him more about what it means to be on the spectrum (right now- he thinks he’s on the spectrum because his back tickles when I sing).  I want to tell him how his autism may bring challenges, but it brings him strengths him too.  I want to tell him about the awesome community of people who are also on the spectrum and will be a great support to him in the years to come, but, for now, he is done with the conversation.  His question has been answered, and for today that is enough.  I let the conversation go, because I learned years ago that it’s best to follow his lead in these matters.  It may be days, weeks, or months, but he’ll ask another question at some future time, and our conversation about the spectrum will begin anew.  And so, we sit in comfortable silence in our cool living room, cuddled under a fuzzy blanket, even though it’s a hot summer evening in Florida. 

Welcome to the Voices of Special Needs Blog Hop — a monthly gathering of posts from bloggers hosted by The Sensory Spectrum and The Jenny Evolution. Click on the links below to read stories from other bloggers about what it’s like to have child or student with special needs.  Want to join us for next month's Voices of Special Needs hop?  Click here!  

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Challenging Behavior at School? Here’s what to do…

            As the school year winds down and fidget spinners are all the rage in my classroom, student behaviors are fresh on my mind.  I’ve blogged a bit about my class before, but suffice it to say that I have a class full of sensory kiddos.  They run the gamut from sensory seekers to extreme avoiders, and everything in between.  During my fifteen years of teaching and coaching other teachers, I have worked with lots of different types of learners.  For most of my career, I’ve worked with children of poverty, whose stressful and often toxic home environments bring their own unique behavioral challenges.   I’m not only a teacher, but I’m also a mom to an eight year old who is both a sensory seeker and an avoider.  His autism and anxiety, along with his desire for perfection in some areas and the "hurry up and finish" mentality in others, adds a certain behavioral flair to his classroom.  This past year I’ve had the chance to watch him as a learner at school since I teach right down the hall.  This perspective allows me to view behavior from both the parent and the teacher lens (and also the lens of a person with sensory needs myself).

             And so, without further ado, here are my thoughts on student behavior in the classroom....

            Behavior is not as black and white as some people may think.  I believe that children, in nearly all cases, don’t wake up in the morning with the intention of behaving badly.  Behavior is a manifestation of unmet needs. 

In teacher college I learned about something called Maslow’s Heirarchy of needs.  In a nutshell, Maslow taught that each of us have certain needs that must be met.  Imagine a pyramid that builds on itself.  If the needs at the base of the pyramid aren’t met, then the next level of the pyramid is impacted, all the way to the top (where learning occurs).  The bottom tier of the pyramid are basic needs.  We must have food, water, warmth, and rest.  Then next tier on the pyramid is safety needs.  We must feel secure and safe in our environment.  Following this, we have the need for love and belonging.  This manifests through our relationships and friendships.  The next level up is our self-esteem needs.  We need to feel respected by others and feel confident that we can achieve.  Finally, the top tier of the triangle is self-actualization needs.  This is our ability to be creative, solve problems, and, in essence, learn.

            How does this translate to behavior in the classroom?  Let’s look at Maslow’s pyramid one tier at a time:

Basic Needs:  

It seems pretty obvious that we need food, water, and rest to be successful as learners.  However, over the years I have seen many children who come to school without even these basic needs met.  I've seen many "behavior problems" happen simply because a child is tired or hungry (or both).  Think about how you feel before you've eaten and had your coffee, and you'll know what I mean.

Many children with sensory needs are picky eaters.  I find that some of my students have difficulty eating first thing in the morning, and so they come into the classroom hungry each day. If they are hungry, they cannot learn.  Making a time and space for snack time in the classroom is important.  In addition, I encourage children to keep a water bottle close by.  Little things like food and water make a big difference.  Rest is also crucial.  Many sensory kiddos have difficulty sleeping at night.  Their energy stores are already depleted when they come to school each day.  Sometimes we need to “rev their engines”, and other times we need to help them calm down.  I build energizers and brain breaks throughout the day to help with this.  Some children are on a more individualized plan because they need more frequent opportunities for movement.  I believe that so many behavior problems occur because the child simply needs to move.  Sometimes the seams of a child’s socks bother him, which makes focusing on what a teacher is saying nearly impossible.  If a child’s shirt feels to tight, or the room feels to cold, it’s very difficult to concentrate on learning.  

I strive to teach each child to recognize his or her own sensory needs and then I teach them to find the right tools to meet these needs.  That way, they can be their own self-advocates and ask for what they need, based on what their bodies are telling them.

Safety Needs:  

If a child does not feel safe, learning cannot occur.  There are many reasons why a child may not feel safe.  It’s important to figure out why the child does not feel safe in the classroom and address these concerns as soon as possible. The child may be sensory defensive, a state where the child feels as if the entire world is literally attacking him or her.  The world can seem too loud, too intrusive, too…much.  Children who live in this state appear to be defiant and often become labeled as “behavior problems”.  Children who have anxiety disorders also often manifest as behavior problems.  I have had children who bolted out of the classroom, and later we realized that the root cause of this “fight or flight” response was anxiety.  It is important that the child knows that the classroom is a safe place and that you are a safe person for them who will treat them consistently and predictably, especially since their world is not often consistent and predictable for them.   The more unpredictable a child's behavior, the more calm and predictable the teacher or adult must be.  If a child is a safety risk to himself or others, it is important to devise a safety plan as soon as possible. 

Children need to feel that they belong to the learning community in the classroom.  I believe that many behavior problems happen because the relationship between the child and the adult, or the child and other children has been broken in some way.  Children don’t display inappropriate behaviors in a vacuum.  There is always a root cause of the behavior, an unfulfilled need that the child is seeking to meet.  This does not excuse the inappropriate behavior, but often times it helps to explain it so that the behavior doesn’t continue to occur.  When a child knows that he or she is loved and accepted by the teacher and the classmates in his learning community, even if he or she many sometimes act differently from the rest, this can go a long way towards keeping and maintaining positive relationships.   Even when a child makes an inappropriate behavior choice in my classroom (or when this happens to my own child at home), I always make it clear that I’m not happy about the choice the child has made, but I still love and care about the child.  Then, if a child has to be removed from the classroom community, it is important to re-establish the child in the community as soon as possible so the child keeps the sense of belonging and wanting to be part of the group.  

I build in lots of social opportunities in my classroom.  These include center time or tub time, where children get the chance to choose whether they would like to build with Legos, K’nex, play-doh, kinetic sand, etc.  The first fifteen minutes of our morning are spent with these tubs.  This may not seem academic, but this social time is a huge part of building our classroom community and it’s vital for teaching children skills of problem solving and collaborating within a group.  We also have morning meetings when each child has an opportunity to greet his or her peers, discuss social matters pertaining to the group, and to feel that sense of belonging in our class family.

Self-Esteem Needs: 
When children struggle in a certain area, over time they will learn to avoid the behavior that causes them the frustration, anxiety, or pain.  Avoidance behaviors in the classroom might look like asking to go the restroom frequently or asking to sharpen a pencil a lot.  The child doesn’t want to appear to be the “dumb kid” in class, so often they will choose behaviors that let them be the funny kid instead.  If a child has unmet sensory needs (such as the need to move, to fidget, etc) and has a teacher who treats this as defiance rather then providing tools to help them manage their sensory behaviors, the child may respond with frustration and anger.   

Self-Actualization Needs:   
It is difficult for a child to be a creative problem solver if he or she is in an environment that stifles creativity and problem solving.  We live in the information age where data is literally available at our fingertips.  It no longer makes sense for the teacher to be the “sage on the stage”.  Instead, the teacher of the 21st century should be a facilitator, or guide, for learning.  It is our job to set the conditions by which learning can occur.  There are a variety of ways to encourage learning, but one of my favorite is inquiry.  This is where the teacher (or the child) poses a probing question and then the teacher guides the child through a process of arriving at the answer on his own.  Learning is much deeper when it happens through self-discovery.  My classroom is filled with creative, innovative learners.  Sadly, before this year many of these children did not believe they were smart.  I think the reason for this is because they were not given opportunities for their creativity and innovation to shine.  Instead, they spent so much time working in their area of deficits (aka reading for most) that they believed that they were somehow deficient themselves.  Once a child begins to see himself (or herself) as a learner, everything changes.  Once they realize their potential, they become thirsty for more.  I have seen this time and again.  The secret ingredient to success in school is a desire to learn.  When a child becomes a confident, self-directed learner, then behavior problems become a thing of the past. 

So what does this mean for you as a parent?  If your child is struggling at school, think about Maslow’s hierarcy of needs.  Which needs are not being met?  What can you do to help your child fulfill these needs?  If you know that your child has difficulty sleeping or eating, for example, make sure that you communicate this with your child’s teacher.  This will help the teacher to understand the behaviors she is seeing in the classroom.  It’s also important to look at behaviors over time to see if there are patterns.  Is the behavior happening during a certain time of day?  Does it always happen during math class?  These sorts of observations can be helpful in determining a plan for success.

If you are noticing that your child is struggling in school even after meeting with the teacher, you can request a meeting with the school’s problem solving team.  This team has different names depending on the state, but every school should have a group of school professionals who meet regularly to discuss student concerns.  Usually you can call the school’s guidance counselor and she will help to set up the meeting.  If your child has an IEP or a 504 plan, you can request a meeting with the team at any time as well.  Perhaps the IEP or 504 should be reviewed or amended.  Each person on the team brings a unique perspective based on their area of expertise, and sometimes a set of fresh ears can bring a solution that you may have missed before. 

Remember- you are your child’s biggest advocate.  It’s easy to become frustrated and overwhelmed with “the system”, but by keeping your cool and going to meetings with a clear plan in mind (and knowing your rights as a parent), you and the team can create a plan that will hopefully help to meet your child’s needs at school and at home.  

Welcome to the Voices of Special Needs Blog Hop — a monthly gathering of posts from bloggers hosted by The Sensory Spectrum and The Jenny Evolution. Click on the links below to read stories from other bloggers about what it’s like to have child or student with special needs.