From Coast to Coast with Herman the Fly

Herman the Fly, the offspring of Siegfried Engelmanm and Susan Hanne, was born as a maggot on the leaves of a rotten cabbage  in the 22nd lesson of the first  textbook of Horizons: Reading to Learn Fast Track C-D .  He calmly expired,  in early November, in the lesson 36th. He spent most of his 15 lessons short (or long) life on the plane traveling from New York City to San Francisco, going to Japan and Italy, watching flight attendants, bumping into passengers, surviving cleaning crews, listening to pilot’s announcements, experiencing turbulence, and adjusting to changing temperatures.

Robert read chapters about Herman the Fly in 2008 and then again in the beginning of 2009.  By the time I bought tickets for our trip to California, Robert might have forgotten the biography of Herman the Fly.  I know that I did.

It was Robert’s first trip in nine years and the first after 9-11.  The airport, however, was already well-known to Robert as he often brought  either his father or his sister there or picked them upon their return from the West Coast.  Jan was working in Menlo Park, Amanda studied in Portland, OR.  So Robert knew about lines, about baggage, about lines, about tickets, about lines, about security, about lines.   It was a great help that Amanda traveled with us on her way to her college. Although Robert didn’t see much of Amanda in the previous two years, she was still his role model.  She took her shoes off and placed them in the bin.  Robert took his shoes off and placed them in the bin.  She unloaded her computer from the case, he unloaded his portable DVD player from the case. She took her wallet out, he took his wallet out.  It helped that I notified airlines about Robert’s autism.  (In case there would be a need to explain some of the behaviors/reactions).  We were first to board the plane. We were assigned seats in the first row. Those seats were  mixed blessing.  On one hand, we could get easily in and out of the seats and the toilet was one step away.  On the other hand, those probably were the noisiest seats on the airplane, as they seemed to be close to the engines.  Luckily, Robert did not seem to be bothered by the noise any more than I was.  I was armed with DVDs of Robert’s favorite movies, cards from Super Duper School Company, and with the first part of of Horizons: Reading to Learn.  I placed this book in my carry-on bag deciding, in the last-minute, that it would make sense to  use known materials  for review  and maintenance during our three weeks long stay in California and Oregon.

When I threw the book in the bag, I did not think about Herman the Fly.  Only when I saw a galley in front of us, I suddenly remembered Herman’s taking first helping from the food prepared for passengers by flight attendants. So I pulled the book from my bag . Showing  Robert some of the illustrations I talked to him about how our trip was going to be similar to the one Herman the Fly had taken before. Just like Herman we traveled from East to West Coast.  The flight attendant on one of the illustrations was closing baggage compartments just like the flight attendant behind us.  The plane was taking off.  The pilot was making announcements. Later, there was the turbulence, just like in the chapter Rough Trip. 

As I was quickly retelling life experiences of Herman the Fly, Robert had more than the spark of understanding in his eyes.  He was looking back and forth at the illustrations and then  on the passengers, rows of seats, and on flight attendants as if he was silently comparing the story to his current environment. I had the impression that it was the first time Robert made a connection between stories and real life. Moreover, all the concepts (directions on the maps, arrows showing directions of the flights, distances, miles, directions of the wind and other) , that were included in the chapters now made sense. They became scaffolding for understanding.

That connection, Robert made in the first minutes of the flight somehow not only clarified the story for him but also made life more… predictable.

We had a great flight, this one and the next three.


1.The Jet Blue  flight  attendants were very helpful.  Although during the flight we didn’t need any special treatment, the friendliness of the crew made a positive impact on us all. 

2.Of course there were  small differences between Herman’s aircraft and ours.  For instance, there was no shrimp salad or any warm food on our flight.  Maybe that was for the better.  Robert doesn’t eat shrimps.  Not to mention the fact that Herman the Fly tried all the dishes before they were served to passengers. Besides, the variety of snacks provided by our Airline served us all well.

Intercontinental Flights. Experienced, Not Learned

In August of 2010 Robert, Amanda, and I boarded Jet Blue plane for a flight  from Boston to San Jose, CA. It was Robert’s first airplane trip since August of 2001.  He had already flown three times to Poland to visit his grandmother.  Those flights in 1997, 1999, and 2001 differed significantly from each other.

The first trip in 1997,  was very difficult for all of the  members of our family. Other passengers, however, were not affected or less affected than they would had been by any typical baby, toddler, or preschooler. We managed (with the help of airlines) to arrange our seats in two rows. Jan and Amanda in front of Robert and me. If Robert kicked the seat in front of him it was Jan or I (when we switched) who mildly suffered. Mildly, because Robert was still very small.  It was much harder to make sure that Robert stayed seated. As I said before, there were reasons why Robert was called Little Houdini. Keeping him seated was quite an endeavor, despite the buster seat we had with us.  Both ways were equally challenging. I  don’t remember fondly stopping somewhere in Europe to change planes. But the matter of fact, Robert required so much of my attention that all other details of the trip are blurry. I don’t remember, for instance if we flew to Brussels or Amsterdam to change planes.  I remember that the airport was dreary, smelled of marijuana, and didn’t have right kind of fries for Robert.

The flight on a way to Poland in 1999, was rather uneventful, although my husband and I were both tense expecting the worse. The worse came on the flight back to US. Maybe Robert did not want to part with his grandmother, his loving step grandfather, the old orchard, and the neighborhood children, who treated him like he was a part of their group. Something which has never happened in America before or after.  Maybe, he ate too many of  his  barbecue chips, we bought to sooth him during the trip.  A year later we found out that those chips caused Robert’s severe stomach pains.  Maybe, the new antihistamine we gave him (Benadryl instead of Novahistine) caused unpredicted reaction, but Robert was screaming a lot, going to the restroom a lot, smelled bad, and kicked the seat in front of him a lot.  And that seat hosted a young, extremely patient man, who didn’t even once turn back to us to signal his discontent.  When we arrived in Boston, the drug sniffing dogs turned their noses from us in obvious disgust.  We felt so beaten  up that we did not say a  word in the cab that brought us home.

I thought I would never take Robert again on a long  flight, but his grandmother missed us all.  She missed Robert. We missed her.  So we dared to fly again in August of 2001.  Robert knew where he was going, he knew what to expect, and more or less he knew how to behave. Moreover, somehow he came to his own conclusion that he should follow his sister’s lead, whenever he left the house.  Between 1999 and 2001, Amanda became his role model.  This time, Robert loved the airplane. He was both excited and mellow.  He wanted his window blind up so he could watch the sky.  The flight attendant wanted it down, so we worked on the compromise.  The blind was two inches up.  Enough for Robert to see and enough to satisfy flight attendant.  It was a beautiful trip with a few soothing flights.  Yes, there were other children on the plane, who cried or even screamed.  I felt for the parents, I knew what they were going through, but I was not one bit disturbed by the noise. As bad as it sounds, I didn’t feel the slightest discomfort. They were not my children and I did not have to do anything about to calm them.  Such a relief!

I would fly with Robert anywhere, anytime! Or so I thought.

Then, two weeks after our return from Poland to JFK, 9-11 happened.  New security measure took place.

I recalled the incident, which seemed insignificant at the time, but became important later, in a new, post 9-11 world.

As we waited, before our flight, at the gate at JFK , we let Robert run in the rather empty space near our seats.  We did not notice any doors.  But although indistinguishable in color and shape from the surrounding wall, the doors were there.  Robert  noticed them and  opened them. The alarm sounded. Loudly.  The woman came out,  checked what had happened, gave us a sort of scolding,  and left. Her reaction was rather mild. It was still August 2001.

I imagined, what reaction could we expect if Robert opened that door after September of 2001 and my resolve to travel diminished so much that in 2009, I chose driving from Boston to San Carlos, CA over flying.

But although it was a wonderful road trip, I knew I would not repeat it without having another driver with me all the way to California and back.  We had to fly.

So after nine flightless years, in August of 2010, Amanda, Robert, and I boarded a Jet Blue plane on a flight from Boston to San Jose, CA.

But that is another story and another post on this blog: From Coast to Coast with Herman the Fly

When I look back on those journeys, I am glad that we took Robert with us when he was just 5 years old, and relatively small.  It was difficult for us, but we could manage.  It was a priceless exposure  to traveling by plane.

Maybe it would be better to take him on shorter flights before the long ones.  Maybe we should take him sooner. I am not sure.

At one or two of those flights we had a DVD or a computer game we could use.   I am not sure, however, if that made a difference.

We should not have  used a new, over the counter medication on the trip.  We should stay with only zyrtec, since novahistine was already removed from the market.

I am not sure what else we could do. I know we had to travel.  I am glad we did.

First Question

During the last two years I tried to teach Robert to ask questions. Not an easy task given Robert’s issues with pacing, timing, omitting sounds, compressing syllables, and a few other characteristics of his speech. To learn and practice mechanics and concepts behind questions I used   two No Glomour Sentence Structure books. One for Interrogative Reversals and one for Wh-Questions. I followed with Nashoba’s “WH” Workbook.  Currently we practice using worksheets from Teaching Kids of All Ages to Ask Questions.  

Of course I do other things as well.  I keep a few items in a small sack, place my hand inside, and say,”I found something.” I wait for Robert to ask, “What is it?” I take the object out, show him and answer, “This is…”   I hide items in the house, knowing that Robert has to find them and put them in a right place.  He starts looking without asking , but then he gives up and comes to me, “Drawer.”  he says.  I model, “You want to know (softly) where is the drawer (loudly).”  Robert repeats, “Where is the drawer?” I tell him, “Under the bed.”

This exercise allows to practice not only questions but also preposition, another concept Robert has difficulties with. “Phone”, Says Robert.
“You want to know WHERE IS THE PHONE?” I ask.  “Where is the phone?” asks Robert. The answers might wary, “In the bottom drawer.” “Behind the bench.”” On the top shelf of a bookcase”.

But as of today, Robert has never asked “WH” questions spontaneously, without prompting or without  rearranging the environment.

That doesn’t mean that Robert doesn’t ask without prompting.  He asks.  He just doesn’t use “WH” words.

Not once when he puts away laundry, he brings to me a piece of clothing and asks, “Amanda?”  I answer, “No, it is mine.” Robert hangs the shirt in my closet.  Robert asks for information or confirmation using just one word.  Of course, the person being asked has to know the context of the question and has to know Robert.

Yet, nine years ago, Robert managed to ask perfect question without using even one word.  He was already 11 years old but that was his first spontaneous question.

My friend and I were sitting on the opposite sides of the kitchen table drinking tea and eating something. I don’t remember what that something was, except that the food was placed on a few small plates.  My friend drank tea with raspberry syrup.  I drank tea with lemon and sugar. Robert was watching the table and as soon as the dish was emptied, he picked it up and carried it to the kitchen sink.  Soon, all the plates were gone and only two glasses with tea and two teaspoons were left.  My friend kept her teaspoon in a glass.  My teaspoon was  on the table, next to the glass.  (Yes, I drink and serve tea in glasses, not cups.) Robert approached, looked at both glasses,  picked my teaspoon, and holding it just above the glass made a stirring motion in the air.  At the same time, he looked at me with two question marks in his eyes.

“Yes, I said, You can take it.”  And he did. He took the teaspoon.

I still marvel, how considerate and tactful he was.  Without one word he managed to ask, “Do you still need this teaspoon to steer the sugar in your tea and if not,  could I take it?”

I sometimes claimed that Robert was born without language and that his teachers and I were implanting singular language concepts in him.

That day, nine years ago, I realized I  was wrong.

The Miracle of Mrs. Scott. When Muscles Don’t Work, The Heart Does.

“Robert needs an energetic, young male as his aide.” Said the teacher from the Collaborative program.

“He requires a young, strong male.” Reiterated  the special needs administrator from the same program.

“Robert should have a strong, young man as his one-to-one aide.” Agreed the special needs administrator representing  public school district.

It was the consensus reached during a meeting held  in March of 2006.  Robert’s behaviors  related to autism and to his OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder)  demanded that he had an aide who was an energetic, young, strong male.

And so Robert’s aide was an energetic, young man.  Yet, by the end of 2005/2006 school year Robert was expelled from the Collaborative.

Well, “expelled” is not a right word.  Robert could not be “expelled” without involvement of the state’s department of education.  For some reason, nobody wanted such intrusion. Robert was not “expelled”, he was just not allowed into the summer extension of the program and not accepted into the program for the next school year.

Having an energetic, young, strong man as his aide did not work for Robert. His behavior was so difficult that, based on his profile written by the lead teacher from the Collaborative, he was considered a student  impossible to control or manage.  No wonder that no school showed any interest in teaching such a creature. For the  next four and a half months, I tried to find a place that would accept him even for a limited time.

Finally, in the last week of October, maybe because of the mediators’ arguments (I don’t know what they were), maybe because of the letter I wrote to the former commissioner of the state’s department of education, the public school agreed to accept Robert for two hours a day in its life skill classroom at the local  High School.

Moreover, the district already had an aide for Robert.

The aide was not a strong male.  The aide was a fragile woman.

The aide was not young. The aide  was a mother of four adult children.  She was a grandmother to many more.

She was Mrs. Scott.

At first, I felt confused and wanted to protest.  If Robert was a monster, the school painted him to be, how could the administrators choose someone not able to restrain him when such need would arise?

Then I remembered.  For the last two years, I, personally, never felt a need to restrain Robert.  I too, was an aging woman, physically not strong enough to deal with Robert’s tantrums.   I not only managed Robert’s behaviors, I succeeded in helping Robert to learn and to be.

So, despite my doubts, I kept my mouth shut. Mrs. Scott became Robert’s aide.

The Monday, following the last meeting I started driving Robert to school and picking him up after two hours.

Not even ten days later, when Robert got off the van, he noticed that he (I?)  forgot his school bag.  That created a potential for a disaster. Robert, given his OCD could not  go to school WITHOUT a school bag and he could not return home WITHOUT going into  the classroom.

Faced with this conundrum I expected a long  stalemate of whining, frowning, angry sounds, and maybe even slapping his own cheeks in distress.  Except, Mrs. Scott was there.

She was a mother of four, she was a grandmother to more than four.  She felt for him, she understood his distress.  She patted gently his cheeks and kept repeating, “It’s okay.  It’s okay.  Mom will bring the backpack later.  We go to school.  Mom will bring the backpack.  It’s okay.  It’s okay. ”

I saw my son’s  confusion disappearing.  His tension was melting.  He gave Mrs. Scott his hand and calmly walked with her to school.


Three Rejections


In the spring of 2006,  I received a flier about a 4 day long, spring vacation  program for children with autism. It came from  the autism support organizations we were part almost from the inception. I was not sure if Robert would have had enough support to attend all the four days, but I believed that he could go with a small group of his peers to the Big Apple Circus. After all, he went there with me and his sister a few  times.  He loved it and he behaved appropriately.  Going with a small group seemed like a natural next step.  So I called the number on the flier  to register Robert for that outing. As soon as I said Robert’s name, I heard a silence.  It lasted so long, that I thought I was disconnected. I hung up and redialed.

“How did you learn about this program?” I was asked.

“From the flier.”

“You shouldn’t get the flier.”

“How come?  We have been members for years.”

“You shouldn’t get the flier. ”

“This is a program paid by grant for children with autism.  Robert has autism.”

“This is not for Robert.  You shouldn’t get the flier.”


The same spring  I tried to transfer Robert’s allergy shots from the Children’s Hospital to a local allergy office. Weekly trips to medical area in Boston were tiring and time-consuming. I found a local allergy doctor who agreed to cooperate with the specialist from Children’s Hospital in regards to Robert’s treatment and I made an initial appointment.  That day, like many other days, Robert was miserable with his running nose , result of the hay fever. He was constantly reaching for tissues and looking  for places to dispose them.  Since there was no waste basket in any of the two waiting rooms, I kept taking the dirty tissues from Robert while simultaneously filling the office registration form. As I approached the counter to pass the form back to the secretary, Robert noticed a  waste basket! In a fraction of a second, he removed all the dirty tissues from my open purse, ran BEHIND A COUNTER , and threw all the tissues in the only waste basket he could find. I couldn’t help noticing the shock on the faces of the three secretaries.  Someone has invaded their space! Since,the rest of the appointment went uneventfully (at least in my eyes) I didn’t make much of that silent scorn.

A few days later, when the vaccine was already transferred, I received a call from the allergists’ office. I was given explanations, too convoluted to understand and too tortuous to  reconstruct them on this blog,  why Robert couldn’t be served in that practice.  I was clearly assured that a refusal to provide medical services to Robert didn’t have anything to do with his trespassing in a quest to find a wastebasket.

“It is not because he has autism.” I was assured. “There are other reasons.”

Maybe there were other reasons, but none of them made any sense.


“No, Robert cannot attend Collaborative ‘s summer program”. Said the program’s lead teacher  in the middle of June, 2006.
Although I knew that Robert was hardly tolerated by this teacher, I was surprised nonetheless.  Just two and a half month earlier I participated in  a meeting, attended by more than 10 people from the Collaborative, from local agencies, and from public school district.  Robert’s behavior was discussed. He broke a window in the room he was left alone because of his behavior.  I am not sure what this prior behavior was.  Somehow, that detail escaped my attention.I know it was not an aggression.  It could be a self-injurious behavior.  It could be screaming. I don’t know.  He was separated from other children, left in the huge room, a part of a rundown, modular unit. He bang on the window.He broke the glass.  He didn’t hurt himself.   He was suspended for a week and now a meeting was held to discuss the next step. Since from the teacher’s prior attitudes expressed in her multiple phone calls home, I had deduced that she had had a hard time dealing with Robert, I suggested, I asked, I  begged many times to let me explore  different schools.  It was clear to me then, in end of March of 2006, that the program didn’t work for Robert and that he would not be tolerated much longer.  So I asked, “Please, consider other programs. Please, send his folders to other programs.  Let me check them, before the school ends, so he is not left without a school.”

Under Massachusetts’ commonly approved practices -if not laws- I could not visit any program without the public school consent .

I repeated myself ad nauseam, as humbly as I could, “Please, let me see other programs.”

“There is no need for that.” Stated the lead teacher.

“It is too early for that.” Said a person from the  Commonwealth’s (State) Department.

“Oh, the Collaborative is doing a good job. They know Robert, they like Robert.” Affirmed the administrator from the public school district.

“I like Robert very much.” professed the teacher.

Two and a half months later the same teacher said, “No, Robert cannot attend the Collaborative’s summer program.

“But the summer program is written in his IEP.”  I replied.

“If it is, it has to be ANOTHER summer program. Our summer program is not for him.”

For the next four and a half months, Robert, fourteen years old at that time, stayed at home.


1. I found another agency, wide open to Robert.

2.I found another allergists in the town of Natick, and for almost two years Robert was receiving allergy shots over there in a wonderful, calm atmosphere.

3.For four months, I taught Robert at home to discover how much more he could learn with appropriate instruction, and how easy it was to improve his behaviors in and out of the house.

In the end all those rejections were beneficial for Robert, but I cannot say that I still don’t feel the pain, they caused.

Counting Errors. His and Mine

Robert was making many mistakes today (November 6) as he was trying to solve word problems that required adding and subtracting fractions. The word “more” confused him again when it was a part of a phrase, “How much more?”, so he wanted to add the quantities that should be subtracted. Although he found common denominators without problems, he kept forgetting the whole numbers when they were part of the mixed fractions.  He couldn’t understand the way he had to regroup the fractions and change one whole into a fraction of a given denominator so it could be added to the fraction’s part of the mixed number.  He made too many mistakes for me to address at the same time.

The best solution would be to put the packet of 5 worksheets away and return to it after practicing separately or in a  chain of related problems of increasing difficulties all the skills required for successful completion of those worksheets.

I couldn’t do that, because when Robert starts working on a packet of worksheets, he has to finish working on the worksheets. So I led Robert through each and every problem from the beginning to end.  That didn’t make any educational sense.  Robert was not learning anything about solving word problems that required adding and subtracting fractions.  Even worse, I was teaching him not to trust himself, be passive, and helplessly wait for others to solve problems for him.

Yes, Robert was making many errors but his errors were results of a giant blunder I had committed by asking him to work on this folder.

I miscalculated, to put it gently.

I should have known that asking  Robert to solve the problem that had two steps would lead to errors even if he could fluently address each step separately. I was asking him to put together three skills, each very different from the other: choosing the proper operation (a sum or a difference), finding common denominators, not forgetting the whole numbers in the process, and changing one whole number into a fraction.

I cannot even say, that before I started working with Robert on this unit,  I was not aware of difficulties he (and I)  might encounter.  Almost one year ago, I worked with Robert on the same packet, just for diagnostic purposes.  I wanted to know how far he could go on his own; how difficult would it be for him to follow all the steps. I found out that was very hard.

Consequently, a year ago, I designed a pretty good, step by step program to help Robert learn.

1. Robert worked on worksheets that only had problems of the format 1-2/3. Subtracting a fraction from 1.

2.Robert worked on worksheets on which each problem of the form 1-2/3 was followed by a few problems of the form 2-2/3 or 5-2/3

3.Robert worked on problems in which he had to change mixed fraction into the improper fraction: 2 and 3/4= 11/4

4. Robert worked on problems where he had to change just 1 out of the whole number into the fraction: 3 and 1/4= 2and 5/4

5.  I made worksheets which required Robert to do the three steps in a row: 1-2/3 followed by (4-2/3),then by (4 and 1/3 – 2/3), and  finally by (4and 1/3- 2and 2/3)

I am using the word “and” as well as the parenthesis in the above expressions only for the purpose of this writing. 

This is exactly what I should have done today. Instead of rushing to complete one more chapter in the book on fraction I should have planned to practice those, well, prerequisite skills over a few more days or weeks.

I know Robert  well enough, to predict that  my errors would lead to his.


Segment by Segment to Infinity

I, too, am asking myself , “What is the point of teaching Robert elements of basic geometry? What is the point of introducing these abstract concept of point, line, ray, or line segment?  Is it not enough that Robert names geometrical shapes in two and three dimensions?

What is the point of teaching that a line segment has two endpoint, a ray has one, and a line doesn’t have any ends but extends itself to infinity in both directions?

For the last few days Robert has been bringing  from school pages of  simple  operations on coins. A dime and a nickel. A change from a dollar. The  activities on those worksheets seem so realistic, normal, needed….functional for a student with severe developmental delays and almost no language.

But… Robert has an ATM card where his SSI payments are deposited every month.  He uses his ATM to withdraw money or pay for his McDonald meals, once a week grocery shopping, or movie tickets.   From time to time, he writes checks under my supervision and directions.  He doesn’t have yet access to banking on-line as  I am afraid that Robert could be enticed into transferring money into someone’s else account.

No, I don’t think there is anything functional in teaching Robert counting coins.

On the other hand, those abstract concepts of points, rays, line segments, and lines might one day calm his unspoken restlessness as he will  look, from whatever place he finds himself to be,  on the starry sky above. He will see the stars like endpoints of the  line segments that extend themselves into infinite universe.  With those few concepts from Euclidean geometry he might have a spark of understanding and for a moment he will find himself to be a  part of the universe.

What About Rabbit?

A couple of months ago, I wrote about  Robert’s quest to find  his identity among Hundred Acre Woods’ crowd.  I concluded that after trying on and experimenting with personalities of Pooh, Piglet, and Eyore, Robert jumped into the skin of Tigger, which fit him perfectly. This energetic, bouncing, flapping arms, getting into trouble  character was  so enchanting and attracting so much attention that I didn’t bother to look past Tigger.

If I did, I would find Rabbit.

As soon as the school bus drops him in our driveway, Robert is busy fixing everything I managed to mess up during his absence.  He starts with the car by adjusting the positions of  all the seat belts  to make sure the  buckles stay on top of vertically stretched belts.  As he enters the house, he first runs up and down, checking all the rooms for unwanted changes and makes up  a mental list of all the things that would require fixing. After taking off his shoes, removing worksheets from his folder and placing them on the dinning room table, Robert  checks  if  the purse hangs on the proper hook and if the car keys are inside.  If not, he starts his search. By now, knowing me rather more than less,  he quickly locates the keys and then turns his attention to the missing cell phone. He finds it charging on the kitchen bench, and let it be there.  At least for now.  The smell of bathroom cleaner sends him a signal that both bathrooms need his intervention, and so for the next few minutes, he makes sure that toothpaste, toothbrushes, soaps, shampoo bottles and everything else returns to their proper places.  Only after he finishes with all of that, he returns to the kitchen to find out what is there for him to eat.

When we return from overnight trip to his grandmother in New York, Robert unpacks the car. He places all the medicines, the leftover food, and the toiletries exactly where they were supposed to be kept. The he fills the washing machine with dirty clothes.  He does everything so quickly, that before I finish drinking tea to unwind after 4 hours of driving, everything seems to be in place.

Except, the bottle of liquid detergent. It is empty.  Robert poured all of the soap in the washer.
Oh well..