Football is not for everyone but my boys love it

 

My boys love football. Australian Rules Football (AFL) that is. They read AFL magazines as bedtime stories, have AFL stickers on their bed heads and have even named a couple of their teddy bears after their favourite players. They also love to kick a football, a passion which began before they started school, when my husband would take them outside for 30 minutes in the evening, to give me some time to myself.

Jeremy will even sit still and watch a full AFL game on TV (all 80+ minutes of it). The first time Jeremy sat down and watched football on TV, Damian was as dumbfounded as I was and he said “What are you watching that for?”

Like any football code, you support your favourite team, which in any great sporting nation is often determined by your family alliances. My boys’ love of AFL obviously came from their father because it certainly didn’t come from me.

The sound of sirens, whistles, cheers and boos; commentators with deep authoritative voices making broad sweeping repetitive statements about the play and the players, with lots of references to toughness and teamwork, does not appeal to me. Any deviations from the norm, an outspoken opinion from a player, on-field or off-field ‘antics’, a rogue hairstyle or more than the average number of tattoos will be flippantly commented on throughout the game, with equal weight, as air-time fillers.

I have often likened football to the Roman Colosseum when people used to find other people being eaten by lions entertaining. It’s a veritable nightmare trying to teach your children how to be a ‘good sport’ when ‘booing’ (and worse) of umpires and players is commonplace. At the worst of times, my boys’ behaviour is impeccable compared to many other spectators at an AFL match.

However, because my husband and my sons love football, I tolerate it. I’ve even been known to make impressed exclamations when I’ve paid attention enough to notice that there is a good game going on. I know the rules (having been raised in a football loving community) and I even know the words to my boys’ teams’ songs. To top it all off, I finally joined our family footy-tipping competition this year (inclusive of cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents) after my boys’ begged me to join. Funnily enough, I was top of the ladder until last week (it’s all chance, if I am anything to go by).

Damian, unlike Jeremy, bucked the trend with his choice of team. My husband took Damian to his first football match when he was three years old (I tagged along to deal with any fallout) and it was there that he chose his team. We went to see my husband’s team Essendon play the Western Bulldogs. Essendon was tipped to win.

We arrived early to the Essendon V’s Bulldogs game to partake in the pre-game kids’ activities; kicking goals through mini-goal posts and dodging obstacles and getting faces painted and balloons blown up in team colours. By the time the starting siren sounded Damian wanted to go home. We toughed it out for the first quarter with distractions and feigning excitement but Essendon was losing. Eventually, I took Damian for a walk and finally we left altogether at half-time.

Later that evening when my husband and Jeremy arrived home announcing that Essendon won, Damian wasn’t impressed. With a love of dogs and the colour blue, the Bulldogs had caught Damian’s attention and from that day forward Damian was a Bulldogs supporter. Of course, he has wavered here-and-there to the winning team of the season and even threatened to barrack for Collingwood at one point (Essendon’s ‘arch rivals’) but ultimately he always returned to the Bulldogs.

The story of Damian’s love of the Bulldogs recently won him a competition that entitled him to run on the field with the players before the game commenced. We did our best to prepare him for it and while Damian was excited I was very nervous. I hoped that he wouldn’t become overwhelmed or upset if he lost sight of us on that massive stadium in front of the 15+ thousand crowd. But Damian was too excited to be overwhelmed, and proved to be a star performer.

He posed for the cameras in style, almost like a body builder would with fists in the air, biceps flexed and a fierce-looking competition face. We videotaped the occasion and played it for his class at school. He was very popular that day. One classmate even turned around and asked if he played with them too.

Then there was Auskick. When the boys were 4 and 5 years old respectively, I wanted to enrol them in Taekwondo but my husband wanted them to join Auskick so we decided they could do both, much to our boys’ delight.

Auskick is an AFL-sponsored, volunteer-run program for young children to teach them some of the skills of football and to encourage them to become enthusiastic membership-paying AFL supporters in the future.

My boys were already experienced in kicking a football but they weren’t used to a ‘real’ Auskick game, where kids fall over each other trying to get the ball and only ever manage to handle the ball once or twice for the entire game.

The umpires try to share the ball around as much as possible letting the less skilled or less actively-involved kids kick the ball in from the goals or have a turn tapping the ball out from the ruck. Once or twice an umpire will even join the game as a player to make sure that the ‘losing’ team gets to touch the ball. Although, the umpires don’t take score during the game, the kids still score in their heads and it’s obvious when a team gets thrashed. So there are plenty of triggers for disappointment and meltdowns for children in an Auskick game.

Damian in particular, would often cry when he got hurt or get upset when his team was losing. It usually resulted in him refusing to play for five or ten minutes at a time and announcing that it is the “worst day of his life”. Regardless of the sentiments, they always wanted to come back again for more the next week. It is extra incentive for our boys’ that my husband and I both help out with various Auskick activities, which is a lot of fun and they love playing with us on the oval after the session has finished too.

I can actually kick a football better than your average woman because I took it upon myself as the eldest of four girls in my family to teach our only brother that ‘all important’ skill. I obviously thought he needed tuition at the time. We spent many an afternoon kicking the football to each other over the years, he only wished we had practised goal kicking too (and probably tackling and handballs etc.).

This year, unlike the year before, Damian and Jeremy were in separate age groups for Auskick, so my husband and I would split up and alternate between each group. The day before Damian got to run under the banner with the Bulldogs team he was so excited and in such an excellent mood that he didn’t get upset during Auskick at all and I thought that finally he may have developed enough experience and coping skills to manage better from now on.

A week or two later, I was away for the weekend and my husband took Jeremy and Damian to Auskick by himself. I got a phone call later that day from my husband to say that Damian had a bad day.

Unfortunately, a new umpire ran Damian’s Auskick game that day and she wasn’t as skilled at sharing the ball around. When Damian finally got the ball for the first time the umpire blew the whistle and took it off him because he had run too far with it (after being crowded by a few of the better players). Well, Damian did not cope well with that at all. My husband reported that he was very confused and very upset and was insisting over and over again that he never wanted to go to Auskick again.

My husband managed to convince Damian to come back to Auskick the next week with the compromise that Damian would not be expected to play the game. Instead he could just join in with the before-game activities and drills. When the next week came, Damian seemed very relaxed watching the game with me from the sidelines. We clapped and encouraged the children together and I intentionally commented on a couple of occasions when someone got rid of the ball quickly before the whistle blew.

Another week went by and I asked Damian if he was going to play the game this time. Damian started to complain about how no-one ever passed the ball to him and how he hardly ever got to touch the ball. My husband and I did our usual spiel about how the kids were still learning how to pass the ball and still found it difficult, how even professional AFL players don’t get to touch the ball often in a game and how he could stand in the opposition’s goals where he was likely to get the ball more often and run towards the ball when it was near.

The usual spiel didn’t satisfy him until I said “How about I make a tally of  how many times each child gets the ball during the game to show you that you are not the only one who doesn’t get to touch the ball often?” Instantly, Damian liked the idea of the tally and agreed to join in the game.

I’m not surprised that something relying on data collection with observable and measurable results would appeal to Damian; a true scientist in the making. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

Fortunately, we also had an experienced umpire that day and they split the groups into smaller teams so everyone got to touch the ball more often. In addition, Damian was so inspired by my tallying exercise* that he got very excited about getting involved and touching the ball. Each time he got the ball he was able to pass it on fast and then he would run over to me all excited “Did you see that mum? I got the ball! Did you see that?” And lo and behold, Damian did not get upset once. That’s two days of ‘no upsets’ out of two years of Auskick, within one month.

Results of the Auskick Tally for kicks only

There are very few things more rewarding to me than watching my children reach turning points when it comes to more successfully managing life’s challenges. It takes my boys longer to get there sometimes but that just makes it all the more sweeter when they do finally get there.

Notes:

*In case you were wondering, I did feel self-conscious standing there keeping tally of the game wondering what the other parents thought of my abnormal behaviour. Perhaps they thought I was taking it a little too seriously. Afterwards, I asked a couple of the mums I knew, if they had noticed (they hadn’t noticed) and I explained what I was doing. One mum was shrewd enough to ask if Damian had been right after all (something that had also crossed my mind) and mentioned that “there is an app for that” (not such an original thought after all).

 

 

Comprehension and learning life’s lessons

In my Uncle B’s eulogy, the story was told of a discussion that Uncle B had with a fellow cancer patient in hospital. This other patient, who was a millionaire, said that he hoped to become a billionaire before he died. Uncle B said to him that his wealth was his faith, his wife and his beautiful family.

I was gobsmacked that anyone could want more money as a last achievement; surely everyone has been exposed to enough proverbs, books and movies that highlight the emptiness of money and the value of relationships. Then, I remembered reading the book ‘Herbert & Harry’ to my sons.

Herbert and Harry were brothers who found a treasure box while fishing together one day. Herbert ran off with the treasure, developed paranoia and lived alone in a fort protecting his treasure. Harry went back to his house on the top of the hill and raised a family of his own. At the end of the book, Harry can be seen in good health reading stories to his grandchildren and Herbert can be seen neither happy nor healthy keeping guard from the top of his fort.

After reading the book, I asked my eldest son Jeremy, which brother he would prefer to be and without hesitation he said Harry. I asked Damian who he would prefer to be and without hesitation he said Herbert.

Damian has always loved treasure, for a long time ‘gold’ was his favourite colour. He would collect stones from gardens and call them diamonds or gems. Damian also loves money. He gets very excited when people give him money for his birthday and he delights in putting it straight into his money-box. Once, when I explained that a friend felt bad because he wanted to give us money for something we had done for him Damian said “That will never happen to me because when I grow up I’ll be rich and people will be asking me for money!”

Damian’s teacher (Mrs L) told me recently that she was ‘blown away’ by Damian’s reading comprehension; meaning that he not only read the words well but he also understood what he was reading. Mrs L gave me a checklist of questions to ask before, during and after reading to extend his comprehension even further.

It occurred to me that with his improved reading comprehension, developed since starting school, Damian may now have a different understanding of the book about Herbert and Harry. I decided to videotape Damian reading the story (my boys love to be videotaped) and I explained that I would be asking him questions while he read it.

Mostly, I asked Damian how each character was feeling at different stages during the book and why*. It became clear to Damian that Herbert was in fact not happy at all and with that knowledge he said, without hesitation, that he would prefer to be Harry. Phew! Message imparted. I’ll be damned if I raise a ‘Mr Scrooge’.

You can watch Jeremy read ‘Herbert and Harry’ (with comprehension questions) here**.

Notes:

* The featured image for this post includes the full checklist of comprehension questions.

** Jeremy’s recording was more entertaining than Damian’s because the battery ran out during Damian’s recording and he lost momentum. However, if you want to listen to Damian read the book then you can click here.

Herbert Harry plus checklist

My son lied and I loved it

“There is no such thing as monsters”. I guess that is where it all started. Somewhere along the line, “There’s no such thing as…” extended to magic and therefore fairies. And then Jeremy lost his first baby tooth. How do you explain to a child that doesn’t believe in monsters and fairies that tooth fairies exist?

It took some explaining until he was moderately convinced, but it didn’t last long. One day Jeremy told us he didn’t think the tooth fairy was real and he insisted that we confirm it. Over and over again he kept asking us. My husband and I had a difference of opinion on how we should manage Jeremy’s constant questioning. I felt bad about the idea of lying and I could see he needed more definitive answers, while my husband wanted to preserve the magic of childhood (both valid approaches).

Our combined anxiety finally got the better of my husband so he relented and allowed me to answer him honestly. Jeremy’s anxiety abated with an unequivocal answer and logical explanations but soon his mood turned to one of devastation. He was sad that he knew the truth and angry at me for telling him. He said “I wish I could stop knowing it”. It was a lose/lose situation.

We had decided to keep up the tooth fairy exercise for his younger brother’s (Damian’s) sake, something that Jeremy appreciated. One day, Jeremy told me he wanted to write a letter to the tooth fairy to thank the fairy for taking all his teeth. I said “But I thought you didn’t believe in fairies?” He said he knew that the tooth fairy was me but he still wanted to write the letter to me as ‘the tooth fairy’ and leave it under his pillow.

So in the middle of the night I took the note and replaced it with a one from the tooth fairy saying “You’re welcome, from the tooth fairy”. Upon the notes discovery, Jeremy grinned from ear to ear, he hadn’t expected me to play along with it to that extent.

Over the last week or so, a few of Damian’s teeth have started to wobble. We are all a bit excited for him because he has been waiting for so long to receive that much sought after gold coin. However, this morning over breakfast he asked the question “Mum, do you believe in the tooth fairy?” I froze. I knew it would just be a ‘white lie’ but he asked me with such innocent, trusting eyes and his question caught me by surprise.

One of my sisters, who has studied and worked in human resources, once told me that if someone asks you a question that you don’t want to answer, ask them why they want to know. So I said to Damian “Why did you ask me that?” It bought me some time while I tried to figure out a way to confirm the existence of the tooth fairy without lying. Then Jeremy chimes in with “Mum does believe in the tooth fairy! She told me that!” I nodded my head in agreement and fiercely avoided eye contact.

Damian then went on to explain that he doesn’t believe that fairies have a magic wand and gave his version of how he thought tooth fairies took care of the teeth, which involved a convoluted plot including other types of fairies. I must say it was very cute to hear my son, who plays Minecraft on his iPad and hates being called cute (or gorgeous, or angel or beautiful etc.) talk about the role of ‘wishing fairies’ in the whole process. Jeremy had knowingly and intentionally preserved Damian’s innocence for just a bit longer.

Later, I gave Jeremy a big hug and explained that I was so pleased that he understood my limitations and Damian’s needs and found a solution. I reiterated what I have told him many times that he is such a thoughtful, caring boy. He smiled, pleased with himself and hugged me back.

My boys love this song about Minecraft and because it makes me laugh, I’d thought I’d share it with you. It’s called ‘Don’t Mine at Night’ (click here).

Raising my children

I started this blog 6 months ago. Over that time the way I write has changed. I decided to look though my earlier blog posts after reading the PACLA magazine on acceptance to see if I wrote anything offensive to people with autism*. Yes, I have autism too but that doesn’t proof me against being ableist and yes, I was writing like I was an authority on autism (cringe) and I used discriminatory rhetoric (cringe).

With regard to two of my earlier posts, I felt they needed a total re-write. So I have deleted my posts on ‘challenging behaviours’ (cringe) and joined them to form one very long one post here instead. This post won’t be perfect but hopefully it will be a bit better and on the topic of perfection neither am I. A day doesnt go by when I don’t do something imperfectly as a parent but it doesn’t stop me trying to be the best I can be in a balanced and conscious way.

What matters most when raising your children is love and acceptance. Acceptance means being able to say and believing that “I love you just the way you are right now”. You will need to understand autism as being a different way of viewing, understanding and interacting with the world, not flawed but different. Autism provides advantages and disadvantages to people in the environment in which they live. We need to maximise the advantages by changing the environment (advocating for acceptance, inclusion and modifications to the way we do things to help support differences) and by helping our children to understand and get the most out of their interactions with other people and their environment. Too much emphasis on the latter will increase their anxiety and feelings of being inadequate so it’s a balancing act. Also what we say to our children and about our children when they can hear and what we expect from them will shape their self image and self worth so we must always try to be wary of that.

Everything in this post is relevant to all children. Unfortunately, I still sound a bit instructive in it sometimes; I can’t seem to shake that completely. However, it is important to me that you understand that I consider myself to always be learning and I just want to share the strategies that helped my young boys communicate and cope better with others and their environment.

What works for my boys may not work for everyone, what is most important when you develop effective strategies that work for you and your children is that you maintain consistency with them. The world is a chaotic place for some of us and consistency helps to reduce that. I don’t mean don’t change anything, especially if it’s not working, but don’t change too much too quickly and gradually expose and explain what you are doing and why to your children. Our children likely understand a lot more than we give them credit for, their social communication challenges mean we don’t always recognise that.

Communication and behaviour   

With a few exceptions, behaviour is communication and although each child with autism is different, the one thing that can be said for children with autism is they/ we have difficulties with social communication. Those difficulties vary greater from child to child, but given that behaviour is usually considered a form of communication then you would expect that their behaviour would show that (sometimes more obviously than others).

Communication difficulties can sometimes be to the extent of not being able to communicate verbally at all. Fortunately, there are communication methods available for children with or without autism that enable them to communicate their needs. My children are not non-verbal but I thought it was important to include information on facilitated and augmented communication so I have copied a link explaining these forms of communication here. Being unable to verbally communicate does not mean that you are unable to think or understand. I really dislike the rhetoric of being ‘developmentally’ at a younger age than what you are. It’s literally not correct and insulting. We do learn as we age even if we can’t communicate that to you. So don’t treat or talk to your teenage child like you would a 5 year old just because they paediatrician says they are ‘developmentally’ at that age because it’s patronising.

My children don’t often experience meltdowns (complete loss of control over their actions due a fully engaged flight or fight response). This may be because our life is very routine, yet we make sure they are stimulated with things that they like to do, with lots of preparation for anything that is out of routine eg. showing pictures of what can be expected when we go somewhere or do something new. It could also just be the nature of how my boys’ autism presents itself though because every person with autism is different. When my boys experience a meltdown my aim is to remove them from the environment (or remove the stressors from them) that is causing them great stress and wait for them to calm down. Unfortunately, there is little you can do to reason with someone during a meltdown except ensure that they are away from danger. Meltdown behaviour cannot be addressed with many of the strategies that I write about in this post. Please refer to the following link for more information about meltdowns here.

The next point that I need to make is that some behaviours that we see in children are a response to sensory overload or under-stimulation rather than a form of communication. Sensory processing difficulties and differences are very common among children with autism1, 2. Studies have shown that there are three to four subtypes of sensory processing domains in children with autism, which represent a combination of differences in auditory filtering (sound), movement sensitivity (vestibular and or proprioceptive), tactile sensitivity (touch), taste/ smell sensitivity and low energy/weak (posture and static body position) characteristics1, 3. Within each of these domains children may be either under sensitive or over sensitive or exhibit both extremes3, 5. In addition those sensory processing differences are shown to be related to communication and behaviour1.

Some behaviours that children may have may concern people when actually the behaviour serves an important purpose of the child. In some cases the behaviour acts as a sensory modulator (rather than a form of communication) for the child and may not necessarily cause harm. Stimming is one such behaviour.

Jeremy fidgets constantly, chews his nails, chews his clothes or flicks his ears or other less common movements. To prevent damage to his clothes I have encouraged him to take fiddle toys and chewy pencil toppers to school. Sometimes the toys etc. help to reduce his chewing of clothes and sometimes they don’t, so I have taken to not purchasing clothes that are easily damaged such as studded jackets (he chews studs of the jackets). Chewing and fidgeting repetitively fits the definition of stimming. Most forms of stimming have a sensory function and can help children to cope with their environment. Stimming is quite common among children with autism and even among children without autism. Refer here for more information on stimming.

‘Maslow’s hierarchy of needs’ as it relates to motivation and reaching one’s full potential suggest that basic needs such as physiological and safety needs have to be met first4. In general, what I like about his theory is the general premise that basic needs have to be me before more specific and complex goals can be achieved. If you have an onslaught of sensory stimuli or are under responsive to sensory stimuli you are hardly going to be in a great position to sit still and actively listen to a teacher. (Aside: Some people with autism may be able to listen better while moving so it is important to determine if the behaviour is due to a sensory disturbance that can be removed or just diversity in how they learn best.) Similarly, if you are very hungry or tired and do not recognize it or are unable to communicate your need for food or sleep you are not going to be in a good position to learn something new or interact effectively with others and that may be a familiar situation for children without autism too. These are examples of basic physiological need that take precedence over other behaviours.

An Occupational Therapist is the health expert to consult about concerns of a sensory nature. In particular, always look for a health professional with expertise in autism and one that comes highly recommended by other families in the autism community.

In general, children with autism have more daily challenges than those without autism, in particular many sensory challenges and difficulties recognizing and then communicating their needs to meet those needs. So then, it is not surprising that behaviour that may seem to be ‘bad’ behaviour by unaware people such as ‘refusal to comply’ or ‘running away’ or ‘not sitting still’ may be more common among children with autism. With this in mind it is important to understand all behaviour properly and not making a quick judgement of the reason for or function of the behaviour.

The use of a behaviour recording chart is usually recommended to observe and analyse any behaviours of concern displayed by children with or without autism. Don’t forget some behaviours don’t even need to be changed they are just differences that don’t do anyone any harm and we should be more accepting of them (refer to this link for an example). Jeremy’s child psychologist first introduced us to the behaviour recording chart and it helped her to understand Jeremy’s behaviour better before providing me with advice. Behaviour recording charts often include sections for writing descriptions of the behaviour including frequency and intensity, what happens before the behaviour, what happens after the behaviour, what factors may have led up to the behaviour or triggered the behaviour. Functional behavioural analysis as it is otherwise known is an important part of addressing behaviours5. You can find out more about how to implement a behaviour recording chart here. Keep in mind we might not always be right with our assumptions even after employing such methods. We have to work with our kids the best we can to figure out what their needs are at any point in time and how best to meet those needs.

It is important to realise that rather than eliminating the behaviour of concern such that only the challenge is left, a replacement behaviour (means of communication) should be taught (and the environment modified if helpful) rather than leaving the child with no means of communicating their needs, coping with their challenges or achieving their goals.

In general, with regard to addressing the needs of our children, we need to make sure that the basic needs of the child with autism are being met such as through use of communication aides, sensory therapies, relaxation techniques, daily schedules and routines and modifications to their environments (for example by modifying or removing sensory stimuli). We may also need to communicate with them in a way that they can better understand by using visual means, by providing extra cues and unambiguous language and by explicitly teaching them how to communicate their needs more effectively to us, for example through social teaching.

The explicit teaching of social skills to children with autism is very helpful and includes the use of such methods as Social StoriesTM, Teaching Interactions8, Video Self-modelling and Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (this can also be very helpful for managing anxiety in children with autism). The premise is to teach children more effective ways for getting their needs met. Social teaching really deserves a post of it’s own so I’d urge you to click on the links for more information. An example of how I have used social teaching to help my boys cope with a novel event can be found here.

Testing the boundaries

There are several general strategies that I use a for addressing behaviours of concern with my boys when the motivation for their behaviour is to ‘test the boundaries’.

  1. Incentives/rewards

It is important to note that we rarely do anything for free unless it is something that we find personally rewarding and we need to believe that what we are doing is making a worthwhile difference.

We believe that we are making a difference when we can perceive the good we are doing and see the follow on effects of our efforts and notice how our lives are enriched by our choices. Children with or without autism may not always be able to see the bigger picture with respect to the good that their actions can have. Children with or without autism may not always be able to easily see the full extent that their actions, words or lack thereof can impact others or make an overall positive outcome for themselves.

Both social and monetary rewards have been shown to be useful for improving task performance6, 7. It has been shown that social reward has less effect in improving task performance than monetary rewards for children with autism compared to a child without autism6, 7. No value judgement needs to be made about this. It is just a difference that should be accounted for (and not a difference that all children with autism have) and provides an even greater argument for utilizing incentives with children with autism rather than relying completely on learning from social feedback. In particular, pairing social teaching with incentives in the form of positive reinforcement of behaviour performance has been shown to be effective for teaching social skills to children with autism.

I find incentives to be a very effective strategy for motivating my boys to display a newly learned skill that I have taught them. The more they practise the skill the easier the skills usually get. The incentive should be something that personally appeals to your child like a lolly or a small toy or time to pursue a special interest. Your child should be aware that they will only receive the incentive if they perform the desired behaviour such as a greeting. The desired behaviour should be achievable and be explained in such a way that your child understands what they need to do properly before facing the situation.

For example, the explanations like these were usually successful for my sons “Damian, if you say ‘hello’ to the kindergarten teacher when we walk into the room and look at her eyes when you say it, I will give you a blue jellybean. Remember you will only get the jellybean if you have said ‘hello’ and looked at her eyes at the same time” (I know some kids find making eye contact difficult or even painful but Damian can do it without discomfort -I’ve asked him- he just needs to be reminded, so the request is reasonable for Damian).

It is important that you stick to the agreement; so that you give them the incentive as close as possible to after they have demonstrated the behaviour and that you do not give them the incentive if they do not perform the behaviour to make sure that the strategy is effective in the future.

My children are usually highly motivated to display a desired behaviour when offered a food treat like a doughnut or chocolate. Obviously, I do not use this strategy every day, given that this treats are not very nutritious. I have completed a Masters of Nutrition and Dietetics many years ago and my children have a generally well-balanced diet so the occasional treat is of no concern to us. Although, I must admit it was a little embarrassing (and a little amusing), when I offered a promised lollypop to my boys in front of a disapproving dental nurse, after they behaved exceptionally well at their first dentist visit (after watching YouTube videos of dentist visits and creating their own personalised dentist social story).

Where possible I gradually phase out incentives when a desirable behaviour has become part of their everyday repertoire. For example, after a few weeks, I was able to stop offering the lolly to greet his kindergarten teacher and just use praise and finally I was able to phase out even the praise. So after a while I reserved the praise for times when Damian voluntarily and spontaneously says ‘hello’ to his school mates and eventually praise wasn’t required at all. Greeting people is a skill that matters to a lot of people (most people feel happier when their presence is acknowledged) and was teachable for Damian.

  1. Token Reward Systems

I have found the token reward chart to be highly effective for encouraging behaviours and tasks that the boys do not enjoy but need to do regularly, like homework. My boys don’t have a lot of homework and it is achievable for them after having some down time after school. Homework may be an unnecessary burden for some children and it may be worth discussing (lobbying for) reducing it or eliminating it with your child’s teacher.

Token systems, such as token reward charts, are often referred to generally as “Token Economy’9. Token economy is considered to be a very effective form of encouraging specific behaviours in children generally but appears to have reduced in popularity due to changing social trends and the introduction of new approaches to teaching behaviours for children with autism9. Preliminary evidence suggests that token economies are effective for changing behaviours in children with autism9,10.

Token Economy has been given more attention in recent times with regard to children with autism, with the realisation that involving special interests as tokens and rewards may have much greater value for learning tasks and behaviour change than traditional or social rewards and tokens for children with autism10,11,12,13.

My token reward system involves placing tokens earned for displaying specific desirable behaviours on a board until a prize is earned. My boys receive ‘small prizes’ at specific intervals (after receiving 6 tokens) until their chart is full (4 lines of 6 tokens). When their chart is full they receive a ‘big prize’. They can choose from a variety of prizes although they usually pick the same things. Damian prefers lollies for a small prize and action figure of recent interest for the big prize. Jeremy prefers time (30 min) playing games on the iPad for his small prize and an iPad game app of his choice for his big prize (plus 30 min playing time). It’s important to get the ratio of number of tokens to prizes right to maximise your child’s motivation.

I use images from the internet that appeal to my boys such as dinosaurs and superheroes to use as tokens. I print off smaller versions of these pictures (right token size), laminate them and apply velcro so that they can be used as tokens instead of stars, smiley faces or other generic tokens which have less appeal for my boys. As a three-year old, Jeremy once insisted on throwing away the ‘smiley face’ tiles in a board game, in preference for playing with the number tiles only and Damian often refuses generic stickers offered by therapists as a reward for behaviour if they do not interest him.

My children get a pre-determined number of tokens for activities that they have reduced motivation to complete (as well as using other strategies such as social teaching where relevant and praise). Such activities include:

  • School readers
  • Other school homework
  • Speech therapy
  • Vision Therapy
  • Leaving the school playground after school when asked and without complaining excessively
  • Following two or three basic rules for when on play dates
  • Practicing skills that they find challenging such as bike riding

Finally, when using token economies it is usually recommended that you do not remove tokens as a punishment because they were hard-earned. It is best to use another unrelated system for applying negative consequences.

A Facebook friend recently shared a post on a parenting style that is popular among some parents. It involved avoiding applying any “unnatural” consequences, claiming that unnatural consequences are not only unnecessary but damaging to the child and the parent -child relationship. ‘Natural’ consequences were allowed, such as pointing out how your child make another child unhappy as a result of his/her actions. The idea is that you child would then alter their behaviour in the future as a result of taught empathy. I consider this an extreme parenting style and I do not recommend it. You may recall that I suggested that some children may not respond as well to only social feedback so you can see how it may not work effectively alone with those children.

In general, parenting needs to be a flexible process, all children are different, all situations are different and I don’t believe that anything is ‘unnatural’ (anything that happens is natural) much less providing consequences besides just social feedback and explanations.

I’m all for teaching my children how their behaviour affects others and I do, but at this stage in their lives I know it’s not going to be enough for them to give up a toy they really like that they snatched off another child (for example).

In the event of a ‘snatched toy’ in a public situation, I am more likely to apply strategies such as distraction (to a better toy or game) and/or apply the concept of ‘taking turns’ (using my phone alarm to indicate 5 minute turns) and I insist that they first give the ‘snatched toy’ back. This is in addition to explaining that they have made the child upset and it is not a friendly thing to do. If these methods have not been successful, I will apply a consequence such as saying firmly “If you don’t give that toy back within the count of three you will not be allowed to play the iPad today”. On top of that I also make sure they hand it over nicely, if they throw it, I’ll get them to pick it back up and pass it to the other child “nicely”. I did however have a problem on my hands the day a child bought a golden coloured ‘Thomas the Tank Engine’ toy train to PlayConnect playgroup when ‘Thomas the Tank Engine’ was a special interest and the colour gold was a favourite colour of my boys. I had to ask the mum to hide it and fortunately she understood.

There is another less popular form of consequence that I apply sometimes with my boys….

  1. Time Out

Time Out involves the child having to leave a room or activity as a consequence for specific behaviours. Time Out also offers an opportunity for the child and the parent to calm down if upset.

I use Time Out to manage situations where my children have intentionally physically hurt one another or have refused to follow repeated routine requests (that I know they are capable of carrying out at that time) that are examples of testing the boundaries i.e. they would just prefer to do something else. In the case of physically hurting each other, they get sent straight to their room immediately with no warning. However, for all other behaviours I give a warning that the next repeat of that behaviour will result in them being sent to their room or alternatively “If you do not do as I ask in the ‘count of three’ then you will be sent to your room for Time Out!” These warnings give them the opportunity to reconsider their actions. The ‘count of three’ warning when followed through with properly works very well with my boys. My boys are more likely to physically hurt each other when they are under greater stress generally, for example, when travelling to visit people during holiday periods. It is important at those times to give them as much advance notice of new events, places or people that they will encounter (preferably with photos or videos – visual means) and plenty of time to themselves to relax each day doing things they enjoy. Activities suitable for my boys to relax include reading books, playing with Lego, playing the iPad or playing a simple card or board game with an adult (preferably because kids tend to argue about the game).

Jeremy and Damian have a timer in their room that I set to the allotted time, which is almost always the number of minutes that equals their age in years. For example, 6 minutes for a 6 year old. The time does not start until they are quiet. If they start repeatedly yelling at me during Time Out then I start the timer again. After they have been quiet for the allotted time, I do find that their anger (and mine) has subsided and they are willing to do as I have asked.

What do you do if they refuse to go to their room for time out or leave their room during time out? I found an effective and simple method manage this. I simply say “If you do not go to your room in the ‘count of three’ then I will add one minute to your time out” If they have not gone to their room, after the count down, I confirm the new time and say “If you do not go to your room in the count of three then I will add another minute to your time out” and so on. This works without fail for me (the longest time I ever had to allocate was 20 minutes once). If it doesn’t for you then you can also consider taking away a privilege of some sort. I don’t recommend physical force to get them to participate in Time Out or keep them in the room during Time Out because it usually just makes them a lot angrier and encourages aggression.

When Time Out has been completed, the idea is to go about the days usual activities as if nothing has happened. I received most of my Time Out strategies from a very helpful child psychologist and she made it clear to me that she did not think it was necessary for Jeremy to apologize after Time Out because having to say ‘sorry’ may escalate the behaviour more. This works well for us. Click here for more information on Time Out.

Alternative behaviours to those that resulted in them being sent to their room, can be taught and encouraged separately to Time Out. It is best to teach behaviours in a positive way when your child is in a good mood using strategies like Social StoriesTM or role play rather than immediately after Time Out when your child may still be vulnerable to getting upset.

Recently, when attending a workshop for parents on managing challenging behaviour in children with autism, one of the parents asked the facilitator “When do we instruct our child to say sorry?” The facilitator replied “Our model is a ‘no discipline’ model”. The room was mostly silent in response to that, most of us probably thinking that doesn’t fit with our current parenting styles. The facilitator effectively implied that it was not recommended to punish our children ever. Broadly speaking, punishment refers to applying negative consequence for the behaviour.

Punishment can involve taking away something that the person wants or likes and  even includes something as benign as not receiving the usual reward or token when an activity is not performed as requested. Punishment also includes instances where something undesirable is given in response to the behaviour, such as being given an extra household chore to complete. Time Out also acts as a form of punishment in that the child may be removed from activities or attention that they enjoy.

Punishment is increasingly becoming taboo in our society and yet many of us actually do punish our children sometimes for displaying behaviour that we do not like, in addition to using non-punishment strategies. Some researchers suggest that functional analysis of behaviour, followed by altering reinforcements of the behaviour and substitution with replacement behaviour eliminates the need for punishment14.

However, according to an article by Vollmer (2002), regardless of changing social expectations and the availability of non-punishment options for managing challenging behaviour, punishment still happens, either unplanned or planned, whether socially mediated or not socially mediated14. Vollmer argues that to ignore what seems to be an inherent process of human evolution or existence is not perfect logic but how punishment can be applied to maximise the effectiveness of interventions within an ethical framework is yet to be fully appreciated and requires more research14.

In particular, there is greater pressure from health professionals not to punish your child when they have a diagnosis characterised by communication or sensory challenges15 because their behaviour is more often related to communication difficulties or sensory processing and they may be punished for behaviours outside of their control at the time. That is why I wouldn’t apply Time Out to an autistic meltdown.

Unfortunately, researchers are failing to recognise when comparing the use of punishment between children with or without autism, is that behaviours in children without autism may also have the same function in a child with autism such as a communication challenge (remember from my first blog that the traits of autism are distributed in a continuous gradient across the whole population). In addition, a child with autism is not defined completely by autism and their behaviour may have similar functions to those children without autism on occasions also such as ‘testing the boundaries’ or ‘seeing what they can get away with’, so why wouldn’t we use punishment for those circumstances where the motivation for the behaviour is the same.

The fact of the matter is that non-abusive punishment has been shown to be effective for changing behaviour and is especially useful when the participation in the behaviour itself is reinforcing for the child to continue with it such that it cannot be controlled satisfactorily in the short or long term15. Of course, I primarily use other non-punishment strategies for my boys as my preferred methods for encouraging behaviour that communicates their needs better (referred to earlier such as social teaching and modifying their environments to be more supportive) but I still think non-abusive punishment has a role in raising children to be respectful of boundaries.

  1. Positive to negative ratio of interactions and praise

I propose a theory on punishment frequency (and I am not referring to abusive punishments here but to punishments such as Time Out and withholding of rewards) whereby non-punishment strategies with positive reinforcement (praise and incentives) versus punishment should ideally reflect a ratio of 5:1 (or more) in application, approximating the ratio of praise/compliments to criticism for ideal performance/relationships that has been shown for working and romantic relationships 16, 17.

You don’t have to follow the ratio exactly; it’s just a theory very loosely based on only two articles that I read. The general idea is to have an overall heavy positive influence in our children’s lives.

Children with autism or communication difficulties or sensory processing difficulties often get so much criticism sometimes that it is likely to have negative effects on their self-esteem and relationships with significant others unless countered with even more praise for the things they do well.

I often find when my children and I are getting grumpy that a few hugs, a few games that they enjoy, a few compliments can set us on a course to a brighter day.

Click here for more information on the general benefits of praise and how to make your praise more effective.

One thing is for sure, researchers have not determined the ‘right’ way to raise a child yet and all children are different. It is unlikely that our children will be severely psychologically damaged by loving parents who use primarily non-punishment strategies (such as teaching and positive reinforcement) but sometimes also use consistent non-abusive punishments (such as Time Out and withholding of rewards) that act as fair and reasonable consequences for specific behaviours that are based on ‘testing the boundaries’. Keep in mind that a behaviour record chart can help identify the cause or function for/of the behaviour, and may reveal important triggers for the behaviour, which can also be avoided or minimized in the future.

Note: It is possible that these strategies may not be suitable for children with severe intellectual disability. Parents should use their knowledge of their child, to decide if their child is able to understand the concept of these strategies and benefit from them.

*’with or without autism’ is not the way many autistic people choose to identify. I use ‘person first’ and ‘identity first’ terminology interchangeably in my posts depending on the context (because as an autistic person I am comfortable with both- refer here for my thoughts). For this post, I chose person-first terminology because I expect the likely readers will be new to understanding autism and have falsely learned that to be called ‘autistic’ is some kind of insult (in fact it is insulting in itself by being considered an insult) and I don’t want to deter them from reading this. Autistic advocates generally avoid posts like these because they are usually ableist and therefore painful to read.

References:

  1. Lane, A.E. Young, R.L. Baker, A.E.Z. Angley, M.T. Sensory processing subtypes in autism: Association with adaptive behavior. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders 2010; 40:112-122
  2. Ben-Sasson, A. Hen, L. Fluss, R. Cermak, S.A. Engel-Yeger, B. Gal, E. A meta-analysis of   sensory modulation symptoms in individuals with autism spectrum disorders. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders 2009; 39: 1-11
  3. Lane, A.E. Dennis, S.J. Geraghty, M.E. Brief report: Further evidence of sensory subtypes in autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders 2011; 41:826-831
  4. Koltko-Rivera, Mark. E. Rediscovering the later version of Maslow’s heirarchy of needs: Self-transcendence and opportunities for theory, research, and unification. Review of General Psychology 2006; 10(4): 302-317
  5. Myers, S.M and Plauche Johnson, C. Management of children with autism spectrum disorders. Pediatrics 2007; 120: 1162-1182
  6. Delmonte, S. Balsters, J. H. McGrath, J. Fitzgerald, J. Brennan, S. Fagan, A.J. Gallagher, L. Social and monetary reward processing in autism spectrum disorders. Molecular Autism 2012; 3(7): 1-13
  7. Lin, A. Rangel, A. Adolphs, R. Impaired learning of social compared to monetary rewards in autism. Frontiers in Neuroscience 2012; 6: 1-7
  8. Leaf, J.B. Oppenheim-Leaf, M.L. Call, N.A. Sheldon, J.B. Sherman, J.A. Taubman, M. McEachin, J. Leaf, R. Comparing the teaching interaction procedure to social stories for people with autism. Journal of Applied Behavioral Analysis 2012; 45(2):281-98
  9. Matson, J. L and Boisjoli, J. A. The token economy for children with intellectual disability and/or autism: A review. Research in Developmental Disabilities 2009; 30:240-248
  10. Charlop-Christy, M.H. and Haymes, L.K. Using objects of obsession as token reinforcers for children with autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders 1998; 28(3):189-198
  11. Charlop-Christy, M.H and Haymes, L.K. Using obsessions as reinforcers with and without mild reductive procedures to decrease inappropriate behaviors of children with autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders 1996; 26(5):527-546
  12. Boyd, B.A. Conroy, M.A. Mancil, G.R. Nakao, T. Alter, P.J. Effects of circumscribed interests on the social behaviors of children with autism spectrum disorders. Journal of Autism and     Developmental Disorders 2007; 37:1550-1561
  13. Koegel, R. Kim, S. Koegel, L. Schwartzman, B. Improving socialization for high school students with ASD by using their preferred interests. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders 2013; 43(9):2121-2134
  14. Vollmer, T.R. 2002. Punishment happens: Some comments on Lerman and Vorndran’s review. Journal of Applied Behavioral Analysis 2002; 35(4):469-473
  15. Lerman, D.C. and Vorndran, C.M. 2002. On the status of knowledge for using punishment: Implications for treating behaviour disorders. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis 2002; 35(4): 431-464
  16. Gottman, J. M. (1994). What predicts divorce: The relationship between marital processes and marital outcomes. New York: Lawrence Erlbaum.
  17. Losada, M. & Heaphy, E. The role of positivity and connectivity in the performance of business teams: A nonlinear dynamics model. American Behavioral Scientist 2004; 47(6):740–765.

Support groups and stereotypes

Recently, I was approached by a facilitator of a support group that I attended a few years ago to write an endorsement of the group in a similar way that I write my blog posts. I decided to post it here because it might be of some interest to other parents of children with disabilities:

My experience with support groups is limited out of personal choice. Over time, I have become aware of many different types of support groups through organizations and health professionals. However, because of my challenges with socializing with my peers, I find many support groups more stressful than supportive for me.

I sort and received a diagnosis of autism for myself when my two sons were young before they were also diagnosed with autism. With the knowledge that there is a strong genetic component to autism, it is not unusual for parents of children with autism to have social communication difficulties themselves

Fortunately, there is one kind of support group that I found very valuable and rewarding to attend. That type of support group is the kind of group where the focus is on the children. When the focus is on the children, I can chose to play with the children, help set up or pack up activities and be social with other parents in the amount that suits me best for each.

PlayConnect Playgroup and MyTime were two such child-focused groups. These groups were free to attend and were specifically funded for children with additional challenges or disabilities. A facilitator (and/or play helper) was employed for each group to set up the activities for the children, facilitate discussions about respite information, agency supports and services and to organise guest speakers to present more specific information to the parents.

Although, my children were not always interested in playing with their peers they loved to play with me, in fact they expected it and demanded it. My boys were what you might typically refer to as ‘clingy’. I was my boys’ best playmates in the groups, although there were some lovely interactions with other children from time-to-time.

The children in the groups often freely moved around each other, while they were encouraged to interact with each other they certainly were not forced too and were given space to explore the activities, toys and equipment set up inside the room and outdoors. I was grateful for the opportunity for my boys to spend time with other children with disabilities and get to know them. It is the best antidote to prejudice.

Although, there was very little judgement or prejudice among the children, my boys were very protective of their food. Like me, my boys have enormous appetites and were often the first to sit down for snack and the last to leave. While eating their snacks, they would put their arms around their plates and lean over their food to prevent other children from taking their food and if they suspected that someone was about to try they would yank their plates away from the child and closer to their chests. In fact, it’s the only time they didn’t spill their food.

I was fond of all the children’s idiosyncrasies, including my own boys’ quirks. But it wasn’t just about quirks. In the PlayConnect Playgroup, there was one child who nearly always smiled a beautiful beaming smile, which never failed to make me smile. There was one child who never smiled at playgroup and often became overwhelmed and upset especially indoors. I felt sad for him when he wailed, which indicated his distress, as did my boys who became agitated and a few times even cried along with him/ for him. However, when that boy climbed back and forth over the rocks that lined the garden it made me feel calm and reminded me of how much I used to love climbing rocks as a child.

In the PlayConnect Playgroup there were boys* like my boys who would bluntly and honestly say what they were thinking, boys who were passive and quiet and boys who were active and loud. There were boys who were clumsy and boys who were athletic, boys that liked trains and boys that liked animals. Actually most of them liked both trains and animals but care must be taken not to slip into a stereotype. I wasn’t exposed to toy trains as a child, so I don’t know if I would have liked them or not but if I had of known about the stereotype of children with autism being ‘obsessed’ with trains (and if I had of known I also had autism) I would have rejected them outright. I don’t like to be boxed in a category**, it’s the reason I rejected the colour pink.

There was as much difference between the children in the PlayConnect Playgroup as there is for those children without autism if not more but they all shared difficulties in social communication (those difficulties varied), some had obvious sensory challenges (which also varied from touch to sound to proprioception) and some had obvious ‘restricted interests and repetitive behaviours’ (once again, those interests and behaviours varied). These additional challenges made typical playgroups stressful environments for some children.

Like most playgroups that I had attended with my children there was a routine of sorts. However, the PlayConnect Playgroup, which was specifically for children with a diagnosis of autism or symptoms of autism it was even more structured and included visual schedules and cues. My children and I find routine and visual prompts helpful as do many children with autism so the group really was tailored to our needs.

Being a lover of routine, we were always reliable attendees to the groups. We rarely skipped a week. The number of children attending the PlayConnect Playgroup at any one time were limited to provide a smaller less intimidating group than other playgroups, which also enable us to receive plenty of one-on-one attention from the facilitator.

What I most appreciated about these playgroups was that the parents tended to have a greater understanding and acceptance of the different needs and behaviours of children with disabilities so I felt more connection with the parents than I would in non-specific playgroups. In non-specific playgroups, I felt more exposed and vulnerable to judgement.

It just so happened that the facilitators and play helpers for both groups also had children with autism themselves, which helped enhance our connection and their connection to our children.

PlayConnect Playgroup and MyTime played a wonderful role in our lives when my boys were young. The groups were fun and educational on many levels (through play) for my children and they helped to support me with knowledge, resources and connections.

I hope that groups like these can continue to be funded to support families like mine because they really helped us to fulfill our unique needs and develop connections with other members of the community where non-specific groups had been less successful.

*Nearly all of the children with autism who attended the PlayConnect Playgroup were boys so my generalised observations of the children in the group can only be extended to boys. There is much discussion about whether girls are under diagnosed in the population. A study byDworzynski et.al. (2012) showed that girls were less likely to meet diagnostic criteria for autism even with the same levels of autistic traits. Subtle differences in symptoms have been observed in the scientific literature (Hartley 2009) with girls experiencing greater deficits in communication, while boys have more stereotyped and repetitive behaviours and interests. Girls may also experience more sleep problems and affective problems than boys with autism (Hartley 2009). These differences led the researchers of this study to suggest a need for more sex-specific diagnostic and intervention strategies (Hartley 2009).

**I do not consider my diagnosis to be a ‘boxed in category’ (refer to my previous post on my personal thoughts on diagnosis).

References:

Dworzynski, K. Ronald, A. Bolton, P. Happe, F. How different are girls and boys above and below the diagnostic threshold for autism spectrum disorders? Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry 2012; 51(8):788-797

Hartley, S & Sikora, D. Sex differences in autism spectrum disorder: An examination of developmental functioning, autistic symptoms and coexisting behaviour problems in toddlers. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders 2009; 39(12):1715-1722

 

Resilience: The latest catchcry for kids

While sitting in the principal’s office discussing a program that I had stumbled upon for helping to lower the rates of and effectively managing school bullying (refer to my earlier blog), the principal exclaimed “Yes, but what can we do to help these kids ‘toughen up’?”. I replied with “Do you mean resilience?” and the principal said “Oh yes, sorry, I shouldn’t have said it like that”.

I explained to the principal that it was not right to put the onus on the child for managing school bullying and then added “but actually what does help victimized children cope is when other children intervene on their behalf to defend them because it gives them a sense of self-worth that someone would step in to defend them and helps to remove the blame attributed by themselves and others for the incident”.

There is a lot to be said for encouraging resilience in school children and it can be incorporated into the social and emotional learning curriculum for schools. I located two easy-to-read articles from a popular resilience program’s website that are worth a read (here and here). The latter of the two links provides advice to parents.

However, the dangers of focusing too heavily on resilience is that individual teachers may interpret that as an opportunity to put increasing pressure on children (including those with learning difficulties) to cope, without having a supportive curriculum or working on resilience-building strategies with the child (independent of the problem they are having difficulty with).

Let me give you an example of how insistence on resilience can be problematic. My son Damian has autism and among other challenges that he experiences he has trouble packing and unpacking his school bag. This is not uncommon among children with autism. In fact, I have autism and I find simple practical tasks very challenging but I excel with most theoretical academic tasks (as does Damian).

It doesn’t matter how many times I practice any given practical task, which I have greater than average difficulty with, the difficulty always remains to some degree. What would help me for some activities is to have a visual guide but then I’d have to create visual guides for all types of tasks and remember to carry them along with me at the right time so I have never bothered. Instead, I just take longer to get things done and ask people for help a lot. It’s something I am willing to live with.

My son’s teacher (Mrs L) created a visual guide for Damian to help him to unpack his school bag but the visual guide was still not enough to help him manipulate items such as his lunch box to fit well into his school bag and that was an issue that persisted for Damian when it came time to pack his school bag at the end of the school day.

Yesterday, when I went to collect Damian from school he was in tears and Mrs L came over to talk to me about it. Apparently, up until now, Mrs L and a few of Damian’s classmates had helped Damian to pack his bag at the end of the day but Mrs L had decided that it was time that he managed the task independently. Mrs L also said that Damian often becomes frustrated and upset when he has trouble packing his school bag and in saying so indicated that he should not be.

Mrs L then turned to Damian and said that it was time for him to pack his bag himself and that she would give him a ‘dollar coin’ token (a class reward) each time he was able to persist in completing the task without getting upset about it*. I use similar incentives at home for motivating my children to do things that they find boring or challenging (refer to my earlier blog for a discussion of token reward systems) so I added that I would also give him a token for his reward chart at home if he could do as Mrs L suggested.

This morning, I gave it a bit more thought and said to Damian that maybe Mrs L could let him pack up a few minutes earlier than everyone else but I could see when we practiced packing his bag that frustration would still occur regardless of the time given. So then I asked Damian what he thought might help and he suggested putting less in the school bag. Unfortunately, I had already minimized the items in his school bag as much as possible to allow more room for his lunch box. Then, I had a light bulb moment: ‘Why not have a separate lunch bag!”

My boys have collected lots of medium-sized backpacks over the years so we decided on using his ‘Auskick’ bag as an honorary lunch bag from now on. He would still be putting his lunch in a bag but a bag with no other objects in it to get in the way.

I was in a bit of rush and wrote a letter to Mrs L to explain. I was hoping that I wouldn’t have to give her the letter and could talk to her instead because I didn’t have the time to edit it and it was likely to come across as blunt but unfortunately Mrs L was absent. Instead, I had to leave the letter for Mrs L to read on her return and explain the other bag to the substitute teacher.

The letter follows:

Dear Mrs L,

I have been thinking about the ‘packing the bag’ situation with Damian. Damian and I have autism. One of the traits that Damian and I share (I assume) is with doing practical things with multiple steps. Believe it or not, I still have trouble using EFTPOS machines and filling the car with petrol. No amount of practice can rectify this. At Uni, I excelled in theory and flunked practical (well not really because my reports were well written but my experiments never worked and I was always last finished). So my solution to be accommodating to Damian’s diagnosis is to allow him to have a separate lunch bag. I have sent him to school with two lunch bags today. His usual bag and his ‘Auskick’ lunch bag. I’d like him to use the ‘Auskick’ lunch bag to pack his lunch in every day. Please let me know if this is a problem.

Thankyou for understanding

Rachel

So my point of all of this is that a child should not be asked to ‘not get upset’ when having difficulty with a task or situation because they need to be ‘more resilient’ and instead be provided with strategies and alternatives to manage the problem. If it is generally observed that the child gets upset easily with most things then applying strategies to improve their overall resilience without singling them out in the class (i.e. part of the curriculum) but at the same time always looking to problem solve, keeping in mind that each child has their own personal strengths and challenges and what is easy to manage and cope with for one child is not so for another.

*Mrs L did not use the words ‘be more resilient’ as such. Mrs L used the words ‘be more persistent’ and ‘not getting upset’, which roughly equates to the same thing. A good definition of resilience can be found here.

 

I fell off my scooter

I wasn’t going to post anything this week because I’ve been busy helping my mother prepare invitations for her wedding and making arrangements for Damian’s birthday party this Sunday. However when you have a morning like mine, it is too ‘good’ to miss writing about it.

Today is National Ride to School Day in Australia. After over a years worth of effort teaching and helping Damian overcome his anxiety about riding a bike (a story in itself), Damian can now ride his bike without training wheels with confidence and ease.

We don’t ride our bikes to school normally because we live too far away from school to do that (about 15 minutes drive) but in the spirit of the occasion we parked a suitable distance from school at the local skate park (about 3 km away from school) so that we could be part of this annual event.

The school staff encouraged all the children to take part and have offered points for each child participating in it to go towards their own school-house teams, with the winning team to be announced at the end of the day.

Two weeks ago, my husband, Jeremy, Damian and I did a practice ‘ride to school’ in preparation for the real thing. There was anxiety and tears from Damian about riding a small stretch of the way on a back road (the road safety messages have sunk in well), then anxiety about crossing a bridge from Jeremy who is somewhat afraid of heights, then arguments about who was to ride in front (both boys wanted to lead) and plenty of ‘when are we going to get there?’ general whining. Needless to say my husband decided to ride back to get the car so that we didn’t have to ride our bikes back again.

After our training ride, I suggested that we should wait another year before attempting the ‘ride to school’ because I didn’t think they were ready for it but both boys baulked at that and pleaded with me to do it, so I relented.

I was aware that my husband wouldn’t be able to help out on the day because of work commitments, which made me nervous. What if one of the boys refused to ride any further? Then I’d be stuck with one boy crying about wanting to continue and the other one crying about wanting to stop. I’ve been stuck in similar situations before. Unfortunately, my boys are not very flexible thinkers.

This morning, we got up earlier than usual to account for the extra time it would take to ride our bikes to school. We left 30 minutes later than I had planned because I decided to pump the bike tyres up a bit more and had trouble detaching my bike from its stand. I have a great deal of trouble with fiddly practical tasks. Such tasks are much more complicated for me than the average person. Fortunately, I always aim for an earlier departure time than necessary because I am anxious about being late for things.

It wasn’t until I went to pack the bikes into the car that I realised my bike wouldn’t fit. My husband usually attaches them to a rack on the back of the car whenever we take them somewhere and I was not about to try that this morning. I decided to take Jeremy’s scooter instead, there was no way I was going to attempt to run next to them like my husband does sometimes. My running days are long gone.

I parked the car at the skate park and we got on our bikes/scooter. Damian was still anxious about riding on the back road and started crying, so I told him to walk his bike to the track. Once I reassured him that there were not going to be any cars on the back road at this time in the morning on a week day (unlike the two that passed us on the weekend because it leads to a walking track) he decided to ride and his anxiety abated.

We actually managed to ride along at a better pace than for our training ride and I was feeling confident that we would get to school early. I gave the boys plenty of praise for riding so well. Damian was out in front because I was carrying his school bag so he was feeling very important and I was taking my time with Jeremy, swapping legs on the scooter each time my muscles started to cramp up (I’m not used to riding a scooter). Much to my delight both boys rode happily across the bridge without incident.

We were almost at the school when it happened. I hit a bump and toppled over the front of the scooter. I felt myself flying through the air in slow motion and consciously got my hands out in front as fast as I could to break my fall. I managed to belly flop on the concrete in front of me. I slowly sat up feeling a bit winded and realized that blood was dripping from my chin. I was very relieved that I hadn’t sprained or broken anything though. I was also glad it was me and not one of my boys.

While I was assessing the damage, Damian was up ahead and getting anxious that I wasn’t catching up to him. He started calling out for me in a distressed way. It rarely occurs to Damian for him to come to me. I call out to him to say that I’m coming and he needs to wait. Another mother (I’ll call her Susan) who was riding with her school child stopped and offered help. Fortunately, she had plenty of tissues because my chin wouldn’t stop bleeding. I realized pretty quickly that my arms and legs were unharmed, so I thanked Susan for the tissues, hoisted the scooter over my shoulder and walked with Jeremy towards Damian who was still crying out for me.

To cut a long story short, we walked the rest of the way to school (anxiously crossing roads). Susan found me as soon as we got to school and offered me a lift home (she would bring her car back to the school to collect me). I refused the offer twice but accepted on her third offer assuming she must really want to help me. My natural reaction to any form of help is to refuse; I’m never comfortable with it (unless it’s a service I’m paying for). I know it’s not healthy but that’s how I feel. Anyhow, I remembered my manners and thanked her kindly; she would be my hero for the day.

The first school bell rang as we put our bikes away. I was pretty pleased that we had arrived at school at just the right time. If anything I am usually prompt. I send Jeremy and Damian off to class with hugs and plenty of praise for their efforts and headed straight to the school’s first aid room before meeting Susan out the front of the school.

Plenty of teachers and parents were concerned for me, I laughed and they laughed and they commiserated. Several people offered to stay with me while I waited for my ride but I reassured them that I was fine. It was just my chin. But it wasn’t really just my chin because I was frustrated with myself. I couldn’t believe that I fell off my scooter on National Ride to School Day. But more to the point, I COULD believe it because it is the sort of thing only I could do. I’m clumsy at the best of times. I’m lucky to be alive really. Sigh.

I couldn’t help laughing after the doctor glued my chin and he warned me about the signs of concussion. He actually said “If you find yourself wandering around not knowing what you are doing, then come straight back”. If that is the case, I should visit a doctor every day. You know how it is, as a frazzled ‘stay at home mum’, when you walk into one room of the house and wonder what it was you planned to do there, three seconds earlier? That’s me, everyday.