Monday, January 31, 2011

Writing an Introductory Letter for Your Aspie (or other Special Needs) Children

Mothers all over Australia are celebrating today because the school holidays are over and the kids are finally back to school. Some kids go back willingly, some are a little apprehensive and some are terrified. For many children the terror stems from the idea of change. Some are changing schools but most are simply changing clasess and teachers.

First impressions count and if the new teacher is new to aspergers - or simply new to your child, then sometimes those first few days can have an impact which affects your child's relationship with their teacher for the remainder of the year.

The first couple of weeks are your opportunity to make a big positive impact on your child's first impressions of their new teacher (and on the teacher's first impressions on you and your child). You need to make sure that you take advantage of this period.


Why a Letter?
Your child's new teacher will have an eventful first week with loads of parents talking about their children. It's going to be overwhelming and in many cases, the conversations will occur before the teacher has learned the children's names. Most of what is said in those initial conversations will be forgotten or worse - attributed to the wrong child.

There's an intense period of parental interaction before and after school and then suddenly it all stops. The teacher goes home and tries to remember and absorb all of the days input.

A letter is different. A letter can be read and re-read anytime and the teacher can save the information for a time when they are feeling particularly receptive. Even better, the teacher can make sure that they know which student the letter refers to.

A letter can become part of your child's student record. If the classroom has several teachers, then it may be passed from one to another. Instead of the other teachers simply inheriting the impressions of your child's current teacher, they will get the whole story direct from the source.

Finally, a letter invites reply. If the teacher has any questions about your child or anything covered in the letter, they will get back to you.


When should you give the Teacher the Letter?
It doesn't really matter if you give the letter to the teacher before or after school - or if you send it (sealed) with your child. The teacher will read the letter when they're ready.

It is however, best to provide the letter sometime after the first day of school. Wait until the flow of paperwork has died down a little so that it won't get lost. Just don't wait too long or you'll miss out on those vital first impressions.

Any time in the first three weeks (except for the first days of school), is appropriate.


About the Letter
Here's a few things you should include in your letter;
  1. Your child's name and a photo (preferably printed onto the letter rather than being attached). This will help the teacher to identify your child and learn their name.

  2. Your name and contact details for yourself and your spouse. It would also be good if you could include a line or two inviting the teacher to feel free to ask any questions they want about your child's condition/needs.

  3. The correct name and a description of your child's condition. It's not sufficient for example, to simply say that your child is an "aspie". You need to use correct terms so that the teacher can look it up on the internet and understand it.

  4. Symptoms to watch out for. These should be real-world examples. Your child may, for example, be quite obsessed by rules. When other children break particular rules (in my son's case by telling lies about him), this can provoke a meltdown.

  5. Information on how to calm your child down. Some children like to be touched while others do not. If your child has particular sensitivities, these should be noted. Perhaps your child responds best to a quiet voice, or better to a stern one.

  6. Tips which have worked in the past. For example; my youngest child had trouble sitting still and respecting personal boundaries in floor time. Giving him a carpet circle to sit on significantly reduced this problem.

  7. Information on your child's particular obsessions. If your child is into Star Wars for example, this can help your teacher to bond with them. They may suggest Star Wars themed topics for writing or drawing assignments.

  8. Information about your child's social interactions. If your child struggles socially, you might want to mention who his friends are. Perhaps the teacher can include some of his friends in group work. Don't assume that your child will automatically let the teacher know if he feels left out of a group.
Writing a introductory letter can strengthen the bond between your child and their new teacher. Get this right and you will provide the teacher with the understanding and techniques necessary to make your child's school year a great one.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Accepting the Child who doesn't Engage during Play

Some of the biggest issues that children with aspergers and other forms of autism tend to face are social ones and in the early years these tend to be most obvious during play.

Children with aspergers often have no idea how to join in games or how to play co-operatively. While other children will play with toy boats in water, children on the spectrum may simply sprinkle water on their hands and enjoy the feeling.

Parent concerns are often pushed aside with the phrase, "it's a sensory issue".

Then there's parallel play, where the child will sit with a group of other children and play similar games but not make eye contact and not engage in discussions or interplay.

Again, parents are often told to expect the worst. Their child won't socialise, won't interact and isn't friendly.

Finally, there's lone-play, where a child will go into a corner and will line up cars, organise toy kitchen utensils or simply cuddle up to some soft toys.

In this case, parents are often told that their child lacks the imagination to play.

None of these things are true.


A Different Perspective
It's funny but before being placed on the spectrum, I never really thought about how things must have appeared to others. I have good memories of my play years and from my perspective, there was nothing wrong. It's only now that I think about it as a parent that I realize how my behavior must have concerned my parents and my teachers.

Firstly, there's the sensory issues. There's just no getting around the fact that we have particular sensory likes and dislikes. The feeling of water dripping between my fingers has always been one of my likes.

Put me near a bowl of water and sooner or later, I'm bound to put my fingers in it - even as an adult. Those sensory callings are very strong.

It would however be a mistake to presume that I wasn't engaged in some form of play - and usually, that play was "inside my head". My fingers would be an octopus, a jellyfish or some other sea creature. I didn't need to play with a boat for that. I could play and indulge my sensory needs at the same time.

Then there's parallel play. This is where the communication issues that children on the spectrum have really become apparent. Again, it would be a mistake to presume that no imaginative play was occuring. In fact, most of my play was imagination - arguably much more so than my peers.

The problem was that I simply never communicated my play to my peers but believe me; at times, I tried. I guess that my imagination was always far more complex than my ability to explain. Other children would not follow my rules, particularly my unspoken ones. They would change my games, take over and worst of all, they would make a grab for the "best" toys. I quickly learned that the best play for me didn't necessarily require the involvement of other children - of course, that lesson didn't come without a few meltdowns along the way.

There was also the issue of eye contact. At the time, I didn't know what it was. I just didn't like looking at those other children and I didn't like them looking at me. Now however, I can see the issue for what it truly was.

Parallel play may not seem ideal but it does signify that your child is playing and being imaginative. It also shows that your child likes being around other children. Try not to dwell on the negatives - there are a lot of positives here.

The final form of play, lone-play is less healthy though in the absence of other children, it's perfectly acceptable.

Like many parents, my parents weren't terribly interested in playing "toys" with me. Their interest tended to stop at board and sporting games. My sister was into "girl things" and had a cliche of friends. Growing up, most of my home play time was by myself.

I would often spend my time setting things up but not actually "playing" with them. I'd line my cars up and then sit and look at them for hours. The same thing happened when I was older with my Star Wars figures and vehicles.

It would be a huge mistake however for my parents to have deemed my play unimaginative.

All of my matchbox cars had names.
All of them had occupations and background-stories.

They would line up in "meetings" and those meetings always had a purpose. Sometimes it would be a trial, sometimes a car would attempt a leadership coup and sometimes the cars would be forced to pick sides. Obviously I didn't have the words to suggest these things but the concepts were certainly there in my imaginative play. Perhaps I got the ideas from things which were happening at school - I'm not sure.

All of my cars had voices and they all had conversations.

I'd look at my cars arrranged in neat rows and their voices would "talk in my head". Occasionally I'd move the cars into a different pattern, when they needed to vote but mostly the cars remained in formation. Almost all of the play was in my head.

I've already mentioned that the same thing happened with my Star Wars figures but you might be surprised to learn that it also happened with my stuffed animals, my blankets and my bed. Every night, prior to sleeping, an adventure would take place. I'm sure that if I wrote those adventures down, they'd make popular children's stories. Every night was different and sometimes my bedroom floor would be space, sometimes it would be sea and sometimes it would be land.


Wrapping Up
I realize that I haven't presented any magic therapy to get your children to socialise more or play "better". I haven't even dismissed their behavour as "wrong".

It isn't wrong.

Once again, I'm advocating acceptance. Your child will play when they are ready and when they want to. The best you can do is provide them with optional, not enforced, opportunities.

Most of all, as parents, we should not be so quick to judge. Often there is a lot more going on than meets the eye.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Chewing Issues and Chewelry

A lot of children on the spectrum or with other sensory needs have tendency to seek oral stimulation by chewing. In fact, chewing issues are far more common than you'd think and they have a lot of negative implications. In this post, I look at some of the chewing issues my children (and I) have and look at a great product for reducing the problem.


Chewing on Shirts
In my eldest son's case, his chewing mainly affects his clothing. He chews on his shirt collars, fronts and sleeves and his clothes often look tattered after only having been worn once or twice.

There are a lot of negatives associated with chewing. For a start, chewing tends to bring children to the attention of bullies - particularly when the child has to walk around with a buttonless shirt or a shirt with holes in the front.

Then there's the smell. It doesn't take long for chewed shirts to stink. In fact, they usually start to smell after a few hours. You can imagine the sorts of social issues this causes.

Then, there's the cost. Shirts aren't cheap - particularly school shirts. Even worse, chewing on branded objects such as a school hat with a logo, a scout scarf or heaven forbid a scout shirt covered in badges can result in some signficant costs.

Finally, there's the matter of self-esteem. The reaction of others to chewing and even the constant correction from parents can make a child lose their self worth. These children don't want to chew. They don't set out to destroy their clothing just to make their parents angry. They're chewing to settle their nerves in much the same way as we subconsciously scratch an itch.


Other Manifestations of Chewing
It's funny but when my eldest son first started chewing, my initial reaction was; "I don't know why he chews. I didn't chew when I was younger". Then a few days later I looked down at the top of the pen I was using and I remembered how my pens and pencils at school didn't run out - they always got eaten first.

My parents eventually gave me a metal parker pen to prevent me from chewing it. It didn't get chewed, but it did rust. I didn't have the same chewing issues as my son, mine simply manifested in different ways. Even worse, I can remember having bleeding gums from the sharp edges of my pen as my chewing turned it from a mere writing implement to an instrument of self-harm. If only I had something safer to chew on.

I've also noticed that my youngest child is constantly hungry, even five minutes after a major meal. He was always mouthing and chewing toys as an infant and indeed he often still does it now though usually he'll go after food instead.

He's not really hungry for food. He's hungry for sensation.


Chewelry: A Neat Solution to the Chewing Problems
A few months ago, I won a contest on the Gift blog. and got some Chewelry for my children. I'd actually been looking at the site with intent to buy but the heart shapes and pastel colors were putting me off. They looked a little "babyish" for my kids (aged 7 and 10).

At the time I won the competition, my son had just eaten a hole in his NEW school shirt and things were tough at home. He was also drawing a lot of undue attention to himself at school and scouts by eating his clothing and as you can imagine, his mother and I weren't too happy either.

I chose black and white chewelry and went for a circle shape because I thought it would be less obvious and more masculine. My wife later asked my why I hadn't gone for the blue one which matched his school uniform shirt (now I understand the colour range).

The black and white chewelry has a sort of "ying-yang" feel to it and we got the version with the lanyard rather than the pin-on version. This has turned out well because more often than not, my son chews on the lanyard rather than the chewelry.

That's not to say that the chewelry iself is unchewed, simply that it's not as popular as the lanyard. The best thing though is that while he's wearing it, he's not chewing his shirt. The smell seems to have gone and despite our fears, none of his peers have given him the slightest bit of trouble over the chewelry.

The only problem we have now is finding it when he's gotten changed and dumped his clothes on the floor. He likes it and understands how it helps him but remembering to put it on in the morning is a different thing altogether.

It's surprising how a small thing like this can make such an improvement in his life.

You can browse and buy Chewelry online at http://www.chewelry.ca/ and you'll find a lot of other information on chewing stims on their blog site at http://kidcompanions.blogspot.com/.