He Is Not Ready Yet

Nothing sounded more rational, convincing, and more depressing than  the opinion, “He is not ready yet”, expressed  many times by specialists on teaching, on cognitive development, and on language. Many times, my suggestions  that a topic, a skill, or a concept be introduced to Robert must have sounded insane because  they were immediately rejected by listeners, as the skills, I wanted  Robert to learn,  seemed much above his performance level.  The truth is, they appeared  unreachable to me as well.

The alternative I was facing, however, was not pleasant. I had to choose between teaching Robert what ‘he was not ready for’ or not teaching him at all.  Of course, I was familiar with so-called “prerequisite skills”.  But the conundrum was, that teaching prerequisite skills seemed as impossible and /or as difficult as teaching the skill itself.

Only after I jumped, head first, into teaching something new, I was able to  learn how to teach and how to address in the process the prerequisite skills.  Some of those prerequisite skills (or rather parallel skills since they were taught simultaneously) clarified themselves to Robert when they were connected to more advanced concepts.

Unfortunately, the specialists didn’t feel willing to do the same.  I remember asking two speech pathologist to work with Robert on gathering some information about his peers (or one peer) by filling a worksheet from Sabrina Freedman book “Teach Me Language”.  It would be a great opportunity  for Robert to practice asking  questions and initiating contacts with peers.  The answer I received was, “He is not ready yet.” And so, he has not become ready for the next four or five years.

When I started practicing with Robert conditional phrases which started with “ifs”, I didn’t share information about this  activity with Robert’s speech pathologist.  I knew what she would say and I knew that her words  would have discouraged me from trying.

Instead, I approached the conditional statements without any preparation and by trail and error I chose one method as the most promising.   When I  assessed the skill as “emerging”,  I sent the workbook to school.  As far as I know the speech therapist never continued and the book disappeared.

Whenever I hear someone telling me about my son, “He is not ready yet”,  Icecome sad as I know that  I have encountered one more person not ready to teach Robert.

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The Hardest Punch

The speech therapist and I were walking through the hallways of the middle school building. During the school year 2005/2006, modular classroom behind the main building, hosted the collaborative classroom Robert was attending.  The speech therapist and I were talking about Robert’s language. What  could be done to help him communicate his feelings.  That was not the first time we walked together from the classroom to the parking lot. I liked those short trips  because I learned more during those walks than I learned during many hours of workshops on autism I had attended in the past.  The speech therapist shared with me  ideas on word recall (a huge problem for Robert), on supportive role of signs in easing speech, on programing and using an assistive  technology device, Chat PC, and many other related topics – each of great importance to Robert. As we approach the glass door, the speech therapist stopped, looked at me in a sort of uneasy way and said,

“IT IS NOT FAIR TO A TEACHER TO HAVE TO WORK WITH SUCH A  STUDENT LIKE ROBERT.”

I don’t remember what I answered.  I know that I didn’t scream at her.  I know that my heart stopped in confusion, while my brain tried to reconcile this sentence with my prior experiences with the person who said that.  I waited a few seconds hoping that she would correct herself.
But she didn’t.  She meant what she said. I know that I answered something meekly and politely although I don’t know what it was. But I didn’t protest…

It was not an easy school year for Robert.  It was equally hard for me.  Robert joined this program in February of 2005 and seemed to do well.  He also did  well during the summer, although the program was led by another teacher.  But the school year 2005/2006 was a nightmare.

I was asked later by the former special education director why DID ROBERT CHANGE so much from one year to another.

I answered  that Robert didn’t change at all. But I didn’t elaborate.  I did not say that everything else changed around him.  In winter of 2005 Robert was welcomed to the program that only had two other full-time students and one part-time student.  One student was expected to leave by the end of the school year. The teacher leading this program was supported by two full-time, experienced aides and one aide who joined the class for a part of the week.  The speech therapist was joining the class, and she  often led the group.  In winter of 2005, the program was on a brink of collapsing.  The administration actively search for more students.  So Robert was more than welcome.

In 2005/2006 the class reached its capacity with seven students.  The experienced aides moved up to the more independent positions and new aides came in. The previous aides were actively helping the teacher, the new ones sat  next to the students looking more stiff than sculptures of Egyptian pharaohs.

While in the previous year, all aides seemed comfortable  walking with Robert to the classroom when I met with them in front of the school, in the following year,  each and every aide scurried away pretending not to see Robert walking next to me.  Not even once, they said “hi” to Robert and me, not to mention assisting  Robert on the way to the classroom.

The previous year the children sat next to each other around two connected tables. But that year, each student had his/her own desk for most of the school day.

The previous year the classroom was a part of the main building of the middle school, now it was placed behind the main building in rundown  mobile classroom.

Everything changed: classroom, school aides, students, mode of instruction.  In a  classroom with seven students, Robert presence was not as welcomed as it was previous year.

Everything changed.  Robert did not.

It was not fair to Robert to be subjected to all those changes he was not prepared for or taught to deal with.

It was not fair for Robert, to have a teacher who considered herself and/or  was considered by other to be a victim of such a student like Robert.

It was not fair for Robert to have a speech therapist who said, “It is not fair ….”

I

As of Today 3

When I wrote As of Today , I purposefully omitted two subject matters I was helping Robert to learn in the last month.  I believed that they should be treated separately as the idea to work on them came from Robert’s teacher.  This hasn’t been a typical arrangement. The sad thing is that for the most of Robert’s education I, not the school, was a driving force behind teaching Robert something new.

In the last three years, I can point to just one occurrence when I followed the school’s lead. In September/October of 2009 Robert was learning names of the planets in  our solar system. I helped him with that by providing many opportunities for practice. Then, for almost three next years, I didn’t help Robert to learn anything that originated at school.  I tried to help him learn names of all the New England states and their capitals, but I gave up, as learning ordered pairs of information seemed too hard for Robert.  It would be possible but it would take too much time with too small  benefits.  I didn’t even try to help Robert learn names of the bones in the skeleton (also introduced at school), believing that learning just a few of them should suffice. Instead, I have kept on familiarizing  (the process is not finished yet) Robert with names of different internal organs, their functions,  and the systems they are part of.  (I use a model from children’s science kid I bought in Costco and appropriate children’s books.)

For the next three years Robert was learning something at school and learning something else at home.  It would take me a lot of time to explain why the things worked this way, so I skip any details, at least for now.

This year, however, started differently.  I observed Robert’s classroom.  The children were constructing sentences telling what was happening in the pictures.  These first sentences were  followed by  predictions about what would happen next.  For Robert, this  meant practicing a few skills at once.  Skills he hardly had, although I was partially introducing them to Robert over the previous few years. Connecting them together was a next step I had planned to take when, almost two years before, I purchased a set of cards Let’s Predict from Super Duper School Company.

Except, I never took that step.

Despite the appearance of being a  person who pushes and pulls Robert forward I am reluctant to start something new.  I catch myself being unable to imagine how to introduce a set of new concepts and being scared of complications that might appear during the processes of learning and teaching. Self-doubts  are specially strong and consequently damaging because of the prolonged periods of lack of support in this lonely educational pilgrimage.

When I saw the teacher introducing the ask to children, I became calmly inspired.  At home, I took the set of cards out of the drawer and for almost a month Robert was building sentences and making predictions based on two, three, or four pictures from the set.

For Robert, that was a complex assignment: telling what was happening in picture, followed by writing it down, making predictions, and using proper tenses including, just introduced, future tense.  I don’t think I would have a courage to practice all those skills at once had it not been for the teacher whose lesson I observed.

The second subject matter involved order of operation in mathematics.  In the past, Robert practiced with parenthesis,  multiplication, division, addition and subtraction.  Those were usually two, rarely three, simple operations.  But the teacher added second power of the numbers to the set of operations.  I am not sure if I would add counting a square of a number to that set.  But I am glad that the teacher did.  Although counting the value of longer expressions seems not related to narrowly understood “functional” mathematics, for Robert ability  to compute in a right order is a priceless  exercise in working memory, attention, concentration, and planning.  That is why Robert and I spent a lot of time together counting the values of expressions that involved a few math operations. The teacher moved to the next topic, but Robert still finds the values of arithmetic expressions involving parenthesis, squares, multiplications, and other operations.

Blaming Robert

I will never know exactly what was happening on Robert’s ways to school and back home.  Robert has never told me and, chances are, he never will.  I learned from irate driver that Robert was getting out of his car seat by  unlocking the seat belt. His behavior was  creating dangerous driving conditions.  So dangerous that the transportation company demanded that he wore a  special vest that would keep him seated while in the van. During the three weeks we waited for the vest to  be ordered, I drove Robert to and from the school.

Needless to say, Robert never tried to get out of his seat.

That didn’t surprise me, as it was consistent with Robert’s behavior during our trips to near and far away places.   Robert never unbuckled his seat belt when we were driving to Maine, New Hampshire, New York, or just to the grocery store.

However, when we changed the familiar trip pattern,  Robert became agitated.  For instance, if on a way home,  we had to make a detour,  Robert was energetically moving in his seat back and forth as if he wanted to get out.  Robert accepted any route to a new place, but the way home (and probably to school) was clearly displayed in his mind and any alteration had to be interpreted as  a sign of being lost in space.

Was that the problem with school transportation?

As I was picking Robert from his school van, not once I smelled  freshly made  fries from McDonald or steaming coffee from Dunkin Donuts.  When the driver told me that she shared fries or munchkins with Robert,  I asked her not to do that.  I knew that this might cause problems later as Robert would expect her to continue do the same.

But I didn’t say that she shouldn’t alter Robert’s school route by stopping at McDonald’s or Dunkin Donuts.

I am not sure why I didn’t say anything.  Maybe because  I wasn’t really sure what had happened.  Maybe because I didn’t want to impose any additional requirements on the driver and antagonize her.

That was not the first time when I silently accepted the fact that the people around Robert refused to assign any rational explanation to Robert’s behaviors.  I accepted the  fact that nobody analyzed his/her own actions as a factor contributing to the problems Robert had.

It was easy to blame Robert not only because he couldn’t defend himself and explain anything.  It was easy because blaming Robert was really blaming  his autism, and not exactly the person Robert was.  Whatever Robert did in the van, it was because he had autism.  Autism was to blame.  So it was like faulting a person who couldn’t really be blamed because she/he had a good excuse.

Or it seemed so.

I allowed that then and I allowed that during other situations.  For me too,  it was easier to blame autism than to understand the mechanics behind the problems encountered by Robert and people around him.

I have to add, that during one detour on a way from Children’s Hospital, just by constant repeating, “It is a road construction.  We’re taking detour. We are  going home.  It is a detour.  Detour. Road Construction”,  my daughter and I solved the problem for our future trips.  Although, during that ride, Robert’s anxiety didn’t subside as long as we were in unfamiliar territories,  but from that time on, all unexpected turns were tolerated when the magic word “detour” was used.  I could count on this word even when there was no road construction obstructing the street but I wanted to stop somewhere on the way. 

What surprised me then was  the fact that we didn’t go to the Children’s Hospital too often.  Moreover, I didn’t always take the same route home but alternated between two of them, and Robert was fine with whatever choice I made. So I didn’t expect Robert to remember those paths home and yet he did.

As of Today 2

I have not written for a few weeks.  I have a good excuse.  I was  filling forms for hearing to be held at the  Bureau of Special Educational Appeals.  It was a lot of writing. First, more than 20 pages long draft.  Finally “just” ten pages.  Still a lot.  Even worse, I had to channel my pain and disappointment into calm stream of rational arguments.  That was very hard.  Such exercise can never be fully successful as it is tainted by mixed emotions, suppressed anger, and confusion.  The process, which has hardly even began,  drained me already.  Even worse, my stress  comes up during my daily work with Robert,  showing itself up as flares of impatience.

So, we work less.  I take more breaks.  Still we go on.

So just to keep it down to the earth, I will write about our daily work in the month of September.

We finished reading “More Nonfiction Reading Comprehension Level 3 by Top Readers.  Each day, one short text – one paragraph long. We continued that from the summer when we had completed level 2.  The two levels don’t differ much in the complexities of the texts.  Maybe the vocabulary is slightly more advanced.   As I said before, the texts with pictures are like postcards from all over the world – including its past.  It is as if Robert and I were looking through the window of the moving train noticing changing pictures. Sometimes we  use IPAD to search Internet for additional images. The only effect I am counting on is for Robert to realize how diverse and rich is the world. In a way I am learning that myself.
I think that this might lead Robert to accept more changes, and to better adjust to new situations/places, events  and …. something else I cannot clearly name.

Robert has been working on the first grade level vocabulary workbook by Sylvan Learning.  The purpose is for Robert to independently complete tasks.  I go to the kitchen, while Robert reads and follows simple directions.  Still, when he is not completely sure, he stops and waits for me,  unable to move and risk an error. But he still makes errors. Just this Wednesday he was supposed to circle words representing animals. Two such words were mixed with two other words in each of the four lines.  Robert circled all the animals.  That is great! But he also circled one more word in each line. That word did not name an animal.  For reasons he won’t explain, he assumed that he should circle three words in each line.  He chose two animals and the word he was the least familiar with.

Robert wasn’t really working on First grade vocabulary.  He was learning to trust himself, and believe in his own knowledge.  The first grade vocabulary seemed like a good tool for learning just that.

I make pages with operations on fractions.  Robert still cannot subtract mixed fractions, but he can find the difference between whole number and a mixed fraction.  At the same time, however we work on first and second grade level, so-called,  “word problems”.
It is not getting easier.  Robert learned long ago that “more” means adding, and he cannot understand reasons why expression “how many more” requires subtracting.  I use ideas from very much maligned “Everyday Mathematics”. I draw rectangles that extend each other to represent addition and rectangles placed next to each other to represent subtraction.  I struggle to explain those concepts.  Robert struggles to understand. But those drawing do help…. Well, sort of.

Everyday, we also do a few pages from the No Glamour Grammar workbook from Linguisystems.  We are on page 280 of 400 page book.  There are only few, basic grammar concepts introduced there in a very easy format.  Still, for Robert everything is much more complicated that it seems.  There are pages he can do on his own, almost automatically, and there are pages when we have to work together building sentences.
As we go through those pages Robert practices his short and working memories, learns to connect words to his experiences while building sentences, and, maybe, he also learns grammar. It helps that many of the mechanics Robert knows already.  He knew most of the past tense forms of irregular verb but he still is not sure what verbs are.  To help him find verbs among other words I ask him to choose the word that can finish the sentence: ” I can…”.  To find nouns I want him to finish the sentence “I see…” It is not 100% precise but it will suffice for now.

Still, most of the time we spend on language.  But to describe that I need to write another post, two, or more.