Tag: difficult behavior

How to be a Friend to Someone with Autism

Happy Autism Awareness month and Happy Occupational Therapy month this April! What better way to celebrate than by sharing some tips on how to be a friend to someone with Autism from an OT!

Most likely, you know someone with Autism. Most likely, you want to be kind and friendly with them, but are not quite sure how to interact and go about building a friendship. They may act differently from you, but they share a similar desire to have a friend with whom they feel safe. They and their families appreciate when someone will take the time to really get to know them and build a friendship. Over many years, I’ve been able to enjoy many friendships with people who have Autism. My Autistic friends make me smile! I’m grateful for the many lessons they’ve taught me and the memorable moments we’ve shared.

CHARACTERISTICS OF AUTISM

When interacting with someone with Autism, it’s important to recognize the basic defining characteristics of Autism. As you’ll notice, these defining characteristics listed below make social interactions especially difficult for them. Recognize that all these characteristics may make the Autistic person uneasy with a new person initiating social interaction, but does not mean people with Autism do not want friends!

  • Social Skill Difficulties
  • Communication Difficulties
  • Repetitive Behaviors, Routines and Isolated Interests
  • Sensory Processing Difficulties

“THE SPECTRUM”

“Autism Spectrum Disorder” is the official name of the Autism diagnosis. “Spectrum” is used to define a very wide variety of behaviors that encompasses the above characteristics. Each person with Autism will exhibit these characteristics very differently. Each person with Autism is unique and building a friendship with them will mean you must get to know each individually. Below are some clusters of behavior you may see from people on the Autism Spectrum.

Social Skill Difficulties: 

  • May not make eye contact; may be uncomfortable being close in proximity to new people; may find different ways to get your attention, such as throwing objects.
  • May not recognize social cues as to when to stop talking; may not recognize how to enter a group to socialize; may have difficulty learning to share with others.

Communication Difficulties:

  • May not speak, but understands many words or phrases; may only repeat words or phrases; may use alternative ways to communicate, such as pictures or hand gestures.
  • May speak and understand well, but very literally; may not communicate tactfully; may talk excessively.

Repetitive Behaviors, Routines and Isolated Interests:

  • May use movements, such as flapping hands or rocking back and forth, when excited or nervous; may enjoy playing with the same objects or doing the same activities over and over, such as lining up cars or watching fans spin; may get nervous and upset when going to new places, getting new shoes, having furniture moved out of their familiar spot or having new people in their safe environments at home or school.
  • May want to talk about the same topic in detail all the time, such as Minecraft, Pokemon or dinosaurs; may not recognize subtle social cues that you are ready to change subjects or stop talking; may get stressed or not function well through seemingly small changes, such as a new haircut, long holiday weekends or an assembly that changes the school schedule.

Sensory Processing Difficulties:

  • May be over-sensitive to normal amounts of sensory input around us: such as lights seeming to be too bright; noises seeming to be too loud and needing to cover his/her ears; being startled and seeming to over-react to accidental bumps or a pat on the back;  refusing to touch or wear certain textures; being bothered or distracted by smells; being unable to tolerate tasting a variety of foods; being scared of movement activities, such as swinging.
  • May be under-sensitive to normal amounts of sensory input around us: intensely staring or watching others or objects, such as spinning fans or wheels; frequently humming or making his/her own noises; craving hugs, always fidgeting or seeking out certain textures to touch; smelling people and objects; licking, mouthing and chewing on many different objects, not just food; craving movement, such as spinning, jumping and rocking.

HELP THEM FEEL SAFE

When you approach someone with Autism, address them by name in a pleasant, non-intrusive way. Be calm, avoid light touches and loud entrances so you don’t startle them until you become familiar with their sensory processing preferences. Be sure to be predictable or tell them what you’re doing so they know what to expect.

Watch and observe to see if they have a toy, a book or maybe a shirt that they may have an interest in. How can you find a way to interact over something that feels safe or enjoyable to them? With people who speak, you can discuss the subject, listen and ask questions and share their interest. With people who don’t speak, how can you enjoy an activity together? Maybe you can hand them cars from a pile as they line them up, careful not to interfere in their routine. Maybe you can both hit balloons up into the air together.

LET THEM SET THE PACE

Some people with Autism may need to take your interaction slower than you’re used to. They may not be ready to look at you, respond to you or answer your questions. These behaviors don’t mean they’re not listening. You can tell them, “That’s ok. We can talk more in a while. I can wait.” Try again later. It may be that you have to do this over several encounters until they are comfortable with you. They might be willing to give high fives or fist bumps before they are ready to talk.

Don’t give up! And don’t ignore them! Most people with Autism understand more than you realize and feel the effects of being ignored. Be patient and keep trying to be friends with them.

Some Autistic people will be overly excited and want all your attention. When you’re first making friends with them, share that excitement and give them attention. After your friendship is built and you learn to trust each other, you can start to change the pace slowly to also meet your needs by talking frankly, but politely. “Hey, how about you spend a few more minutes talking about Minecraft and then I can tell you about the new things I did yesterday?!”

DON’T BE OFFENDED BY THEIR BEHAVIOR AND COMMUNICATION

Don’t assume that people with Autism are being rude, disrespectful or selfish as they interact with you or others. If you find yourself thinking that their behavior or communication is any of these things, remember they inherently process information and think differently than you, especially social communication. Quickly forgive any offense and be patient as they learn. Just as you are learning how to interact with them, they are learning how to interact with you.

Be sure to clearly tell them what behaviors you appreciate in your friendship, such as, “I like when you smile at me when you see me! It makes me feel like we are friends!” or “Thank you for sharing your toys with me! I have fun playing with you!”

POLITELY ASK SINCERE QUESTIONS

If you ever have questions about how to be a friend to someone with Autism, be sure to ask parents, teachers or friends who know him/her well. They will have insight into their interests, comforts and unique ways of socializing and communicating with others. Many parents and teachers are very happy to help others willing to take the time to understand and get to know their child/student.

If you are in a teaching capacity for someone with Autism, recognize that maintaining a safe and trusting relationship with these principles will create a crucial foundation before you can help them stretch outside their comfort zone.

Enjoy the journey of friendship with your unique friends with Autism!

 

“The most I can do for my friend is simply be his friend.” –Henry David Thoreau

6 Dos & Don’ts After Recognizing Your Child is Struggling & Receives a Special Needs Diagnosis

Your child’s been struggling and you’ve seen the signs, hoping that maybe your fears are wrong. You’re doing everything you can to help him and searching out resources. Maybe you are just recognizing the concerning signs or maybe you have just received an official diagnosis or maybe you’re in the middle of a long search, trying to find answers about why your child is struggling. Your emotions are intense and raw and tears are always close to the surface. The reality of your demands in caring for your child and the emotions that come along with that are overwhelming. Where do you start?

After over 15 years of working with children and adults with a wide variety of disabilities as an occupational therapist and with input from some wise and amazing parents of children with different special needs, I’d like to share 6 dos and don’ts to keep in mind while on your journey of parenting a child with special needs. The child you love is counting on you. You can do this!

1. Do educate yourself from reliable sources.
    Don’t believe that anyone has a crystal ball to predict what your child will do or become.

“Education [has] led to less frustration for me. I learned my daughter was having a hard time, not giving me a hard time. Talking to other parents helped me feel less alone and that I wasn’t crazy,” said one mother of a daughter with Sensory Processing Disorder. She also recommends finding support groups in physical locations or online. 

Another mom of a son with Autism says, “Understanding why [he] has certain difficult behaviors has made all the difference in the world as I try to cope with them. [He] does a kabillion things that drive me BONKERS…, but when I started learning about the reasons why [he] might be acting in these ways and the science behind it, suddenly it was more fascinating to me than it was annoying.”

Education helps you understand how to help and support and accommodate for your child. You will learn what can be expected and what can’t in different areas. You learn how to interact, how to create the best environments, what services, therapies, treatments, products and equipment may help. Parents who are always seeking out education will find the newest research and innovations on their child’s condition.

Seek out reliable sources and recognize not all resources are trustworthy. Ask doctors, therapists, teachers, and other special needs parents who are familiar with your child’s concerns about good resources. Internet searches will help you find many, but be ready to sift through them to find good and dependable sources and be emotionally prepared to deal with the worst-case scenarios you will find. One mom was given a diagnosis while her micropremie baby (born weighing less than 1 pound, 12 ounces or before 26 weeks gestation) was in the NICU (neonatal intensive care unit). “The doctor had given me lots of information, which I only remembered part of what he was saying [because my] emotions started kicking in. So I googled it… BAD idea… which made my anxiety even worse. Google is great, but it’s always [the] worst-case scenarios.”

Parents always want to know what to expect in the future. Doctors, professionals, experts and other resources want to give realistic expectations. But, no one has a crystal ball for what to expect for your child. Use your child’s prognosis as a guide, not a determination of a final outcome. Sometimes a child has better outcomes than expected and sometimes there are more complications than expected. Take it day by day and do your best with what you’ve learned.

2. Do create, maintain, strengthen and use your support system of family and friends.
    Don’t feel guilty for taking time to care for yourself and other members of your family.

A mother, whose child has received multiple diagnoses over several years, has had to repeatedly rely on her personal support system. After his most recent Autism diagnosis, she said, “I had every emotion you could think [of]. That’s when I really had to rely on family and of course, [my partner] the most! Having that support so you’re not in it alone makes a world of difference!!!”

Parents of children with special needs must learn to accept and ask for help from family and friends. Keep your personal relationships strong. Take care of yourself. Take care of your families. Remember that a loving and healthy home, family and caregivers are most important for your child. Never feel guilty for prioritizing that over offering every opportunity, service or experience available for your child with special needs. Find the right balance for your family.

“I can’t try every new therapy and every new medication I read about. I can’t be twenty-two places at the same time. I can’t neglect myself and those I love to care for my son. [He] is not the only member of this family, and I have to remind myself often that we cannot let everything revolve around him all the time,” says the mom of a child with Autism.

3. Do find and create a team of professionals, specialists and experts in the area of your child’s concern.
    Don’t exclude yourself from the team of experts.

Search out a team that you feel comfortable with and will listen to you. It’s OK to find a different doctor, therapist, school, etc. that you feel works well with you and your child. But remember, perfection is very hard to find, so settle for a good fit. You most likely will need professionals in the medical community, at school, and in the community. Advocate for your child by making allies, not enemies. Find ways to work together with your team, not fighting against them.

Write down your questions and concerns. Bring them to appointments and meetings. Ask questions and seek out information and resources from your team. Write down notes or ask for handouts and copies because you’ll need to remember and refer to that information again. Follow through on important recommendations from your team.

Remember that YOU are THE expert on your child. Don’t forget the importance of your input! No one knows your child like you do. During her first meeting with her son’s school, one mom realized, “Maybe I did know a thing or two that these experts didn’t. After all, they didn’t know that [he] needs help blocking out environmental stimulation before he can focus on a task, or that he will never, ever respond to a loud voice. They didn’t know that music is always the best way to calm him or that he will move heaven and earth for Nacho Cheese Doritos.”

Realize that you will be unofficially appointed as team manager and communications specialist between all team members. Take this job seriously. Learn to gather, organize and share important information from the doctors, to the therapists, to your child’s teachers and anyone else.

4. Do create a realistic perspective of your child’s abilities.
    Don’t let your child’s struggles or diagnosis become their identity.

Children with special needs will be different from their peers. After educating yourself and consulting with your team of experts, begin to create realistic expectations for your child. Her condition may always create significant differences from others for the rest of her life. An insightful mother realized that she needed to be mindful of the way she talked to her daughter about her struggles. “I knew that how I framed [her difficulties] would be how she would frame it. She wasn’t bad or broken, her brain just had a different operating system, like computers. How I spoke to her about it would become her inner voice.”

Your child’s condition or diagnosis will absolutely define who they become, but don’t let that be the only defining aspect of their identity. I’ve met nonverbal children who are wheelchair-bound that can brighten the entire mood in a roomful of people with one smile. I’ve met children who haven’t learned to make friends with their classmates, but can explain in detail about differences in a large range of dinosaur species. A little friend in my neighborhood struggles to sit still and listen to teachers, but she has no reservations in calling any person her friend and holding their hand as they walk together.

One mom tells, “[My daughter] still occasionally says, ‘I hate all my issues!’ but I often remind her that although she has a few struggles, she’s so much more than that. She’ll eventually learn coping skills to deal with her [condition], but she’s already mastered things that are really important in life like kindness, hard work, enthusiasm for learning, and compassion.”

5. Do expect your child to achieve.
    Don’t forget to celebrate even the smallest of achievements!

“Learning does not come as easily for [my son], and my tendency is to swoop in and make things easier for him, but the only way [he] is ever going to master a skill is if I don’t keep doing it for him. I firmly believe that EVERY child is capable of learning and growth, but we’ve got to stop making excuses for them. Have realistic expectations, but make sure you have expectations,” says one mom. Yes! Progress is possible with hard work. Give your child the opportunity to work hard with the right expectations and support. Your team can help you and your child prioritize and set realistic goals to strive for.

Celebrate even the smallest of achievements! “We celebrate taking one tiny bite of meat or the fact that he’ll not lose his mind over something on his hands… We celebrate all the small things that are an everyday normal to some.” Involve those who know your child well in those celebrations. Not everyone will recognize what big achievements these small steps really are, so share them with your support systems and your child’s team.

6. Do live in the moment.
    Don’t forget to laugh!

A wise mother of a daughter with Cerebral Palsy says, “Live in the moment—good or bad—and [don’t] let the future dominate your thoughts. Obviously, make necessary plans, etc., but don’t let worry about future hurdles or joy about imagined future success take up much of your time. It has taken me several years, but I have learned that by living in each moment of each day, I can enjoy the surprising pleasures of this crazy adventure without borrowing trouble from my future self.”

Another mom who often shares funny stories of her son with Autism says, “Humor has saved my life. Laughter changes everything when you find yourself in a high-stress environment, and it has been my saving grace. Cultivate the ability to find humor in the unexpected, and your life will be so much easier!” (I’ve shared many thoughts from this mom, who recently wrote a similar article about receiving her son’s diagnosis of Autism on my blog here.)

Yes, this journey of parenting a special needs child will be exhausting, overwhelming and full of sadness and tears. But, make plenty of room for joy and laughter and fulfillment with your child! Again, I remind you… The child you love is counting on you! You can do this!

Sensory Processing 101 Book Review

The odds are that you know someone with Sensory Processing Disorder, also known as Sensory Integration Dysfunction. You may not yet understand, but some of their strange, annoying and aggravating behaviors may have a basis in Sensory Processing Disorder or SPD.  I´ve been treating children with Sensory Processing Disorder for 15 years and I recognize that when parents have finally sought out a diagnosis or answers to questions about their child, it’s been after years of confusion and frustration. When they are at this point, they are exhausted and need some desperate help.

The reason I love Sensory Processing 101 is because it is full of quick and helpful explanations, ideas and resources to get you started, even before you finish the book. The appealing and playful visual layout of the book makes it easy to skim through, find what you need most, then come back and read more thoroughly later. There are many great books about Sensory Processing Disorder or Sensory Integration Dysfunction that are thorough with detailed explanation of the neurology and theories of sensory integration. I highly recommend many of these books to parents and other professionals. But many parents don´t usually have the time or energy to read through detailed neurology before they understand how to help their children. Sensory Processing 101 is a great resource for overwhelmed parents who need some ideas quickly.

The authors of the book are 2 occupational therapists, a physical therapist and an early childhood educator who has a child with Sensory Processing Disorder whom she home schools. Almost every chapter is focused on a different sensory system with a therapist perspective, a parent perspective and teacher perspective.

I highly recommend this book for teachers wanting to understand students with sensory processing difficulties in their classroom. The research incidence indicates every teacher has a student with these challenges in their classroom. I understand that teachers are busy and are in need of constant learning to be better teachers, so their time is limited. Sensory Processing 101 is such an easy resource for teachers to use to understand some of their students, as well as gain helpful ideas to start trying immediately.

The book has great suggestions of sensory activities that are easy to implement with all children in a family or in a classroom setting. They have even created supply lists to easily start these activities in your own home or school. All children will enjoy and be excited about participating. No fancy or expensive equipment is needed for these activities!

The end of the book is full of accessible resources for Sensory Processing Disorder, including books, websites and online support groups. It also includes screening checklists for SPD if you are concerned about a certain child.

You can order Sensory Processing 101 in paperback from Amazon. Or at sensoryprocessing101.com, you can buy it in print or digital formats.

Start with Sensory Processing 101 for a quick jump start to understanding, screening and helping children with sensory processing difficulties! If you ever need help in your home with sensory processing concerns, I’d love to help you in Weber, Davis, Morgan counties in Utah!

 

*I am part of the Amazon Associates Program. If you choose to buy this book from Amazon, I’d love for you to purchase it through the link on my website to help support the work I do with Yums Theraplay! Thank you!

Classroom Seating Options for Students Who Struggle Sitting Still

School is almost here and teachers are working hard in classrooms to prepare and organize for the students coming back from summer vacation. After my 15 years of time as a pediatric occupational therapist working with parents, teachers and administrators, I believe that you could walk into any classroom and hear teachers asking students to sit still multiple times a day.

All children need movement and learn by interacting with their world through all of their sensory systems, including their vestibular system that processes movement and their proprioceptive system that processes input from actively using their muscles and joints. Each of us have different movement needs and thresholds, so some need or can only tolerate very small amounts of movement, while others have high needs and high thresholds for movement. Some children come from homes with environments that offer many opportunities for movement while some come from very sedentary home environments. Teachers will find a variety of these students in their classrooms and don’t have control over how a child’s neurological system processes sensory information nor what their home environment offers their sensory system to meet their sensory needs. But, teachers must still teach all these students with different needs!

The STAR Institute for Sensory Processing Disorder reports on their website that, “In a study of children born between July 1995 and September 1997 in the New Haven, CT area 16% of 7 to 11 year olds had symptoms of SPD-SOR (Ben-Sasson et al., 2009). That is the same as 1 in 6 children. An earlier study in younger children (Ahn et al., 2004) found a prevalence of 5%, which is 1 in 20 children.” Yes, with this prevalence, children with sensory processing or sensory integration disorders are in every school and every classroom.

I’ve collaborated over the past several years with parents and teachers to help address the needs of these wiggly students. I’d like to share the seating options that teachers are using to help students regulate their sensory systems and prepare to learn. When you initially present these options, remember that the novelty is exciting for students. Let them try it several times and watch how they react. For all students, the novelty will wear off. Some may never use them again in the year. For those who do use it, you may see it helping. Use these as tools in your toolbox, none of which are a magic wand to fix all concerns. You can always set boundaries and expectations around appropriate use, but keep in mind the purpose of these ideas is to allow students to try to self-regulate their sensory system to prepare for learning. Please remember that these are options to try a few times to see what or what combination works along with other sensory strategies.

I’ve linked some of the products we’ve trialed, but there are other options to research! I’d love to hear if you find other good products!

 

EXERCISE BALLS

Bounce, roll back and forth and activate muscles not used by sitting in a regular school chair (vestibular and proprioceptive input)! Exercise balls are easy to find and you can buy them fairly cheap. You don’t need to buy the highest quality. Yes, exercise balls will become victims of pencil stabbings, so find some good prices. I’ve found some for as cheap as $8-12 at places such as Ross, TJ Maxx, Wal-Mart, Target and Amazon. Be sure to look at height recommendations because small children will not be able to sit on too large of a ball independently. We’ve found that very young students or students with poor core strength or balance aren’t able to stay balanced all day without falling off the exercise balls or the wobble chairs below.

 

WOBBLE CHAIRS

Wobble chairs allow a student to move slightly while having a little more stability than an exercise ball. I first saw these in a classroom that had Hokki stools at the student computers. We assigned a wiggly student to sit on the Hokki stool throughout the day, which allowed him to follow classroom rules to not tip his seat back or get out of his chair during work time. Amazon also sells Hokki stools in two heights: 15″ Hokki stool, 18″ Hokki stool. The next year, we found these Kore chairs that were cheaper and they’ve been great for many students. Here is a link to buy single 14″ Kore wobble chairs from amazon.com. Amazon also sells the 14″ Kore wobble chairs in a set of 3 for a cheaper individual price. We’ve ordered taller Kore wobble chairs for taller students, although at 5’2″ with short legs, I fit most comfortably on the 14″ stool. Here is an Amazon link to the 18.7″ Kore wobble chairs for teens.

 

 

DISC CUSHIONS

The disc cushions are inflated with air and allow a student to slightly move while sitting, rocking and wiggling in a regular school chair. Students who are concerned with being different can use these without standing out. We bought an Isokinetic brand on amazon.com.

 

 

 

ROCKING CHAIRS

We tried a wobble chair with a student with some slight motor difficulties with balance and core strength, but after multiple falls off the wobble chair, we realized we needed another option. We ordered this rocking school chair just for him. He used it the rest of the year without any falls, but was still able to get the movement he needed. We are ordering more of these, especially for the younger students who struggle staying on the exercise balls or wobble chairs without falling. This student also preferred to have a disc cushion on his rocking chair! (Remember that you need to trial the options to see what works!) We bought a Zuma rocker brand. The cheapest price I found to buy more just recently was at worthingtondirect.com

 

RESISTANCE BANDS FOR FEET

We bought the green medium-resistance Thera-Band on amazon.com to tie around chairs and desks for students to kick while they are sitting. We ended up wrapping the resistance band around the desk legs closest to the chair. Stacking chairs was difficult when the resistance band was around the chair legs and then the band would get lost, so this option seemed to be the best. Some students kick, some rest and swing their feet back and forth, and others pull with their hands while kicking with their feet. The resistance against active movement gives the students proprioceptive feedback (input into muscles and joints) that might otherwise be sought out with hitting, pushing or kicking other objects or students. I recently found some similar resistance band, CanDo brand, that was a bit cheaper on schoolspecialty.com.

 

POSITIONING AT DIFFERENT LEVELS

Some teachers got really excited and even rearranged their classrooms to rotate through different seating levels like this. (Notice that wobble chairs are still an option in this classroom also.) The desk legs were adjusted to allow for different heights for sitting on the floor or sitting in a seat. (I didn’t even realize this was possible with the desk legs until after I saw this classroom!) Remember that there is no equipment or expense involved to allow a student to stand at their desk or lay on their tummy to work. Many teachers have small couches, beanbags and pillows to allow this.

 

 

SECLUDED AREAS

Some children need an escape from the multi-sensory environment of a school classroom. Offer quiet corners, under a teacher’s desk or behind a bookshelf or filing cabinet. One teacher told me about a student who created her own secluded area with a few chairs blocking her off from the classroom while she sat on the floor in the corner. She then hung jackets over the backs of the chairs to help block out the extra sensory input that was too difficult to process before returning to her desk.

 

WEIGHTED LAP PADS, BLANKETS OR BACKPACKS


Laying a weighted lap pad or a backpack across the student’s legs provides deep pressure input, which tends to be calming. You may find certain students that want to wear their backpack while sitting at their desk. They may be seeking this calming input into their shoulders. If it’s too difficult to sit in a chair while wearing it on their back, give them the option to wear it on their shoulders frontwards.

One student preferred to either wear his backpack or lay the heavier weighted blanket across his lap while sitting. Another young elementary student had a hard time keeping his hands to himself or from taboo play inside his trousers, but with a weighted lap pad, these behaviors decreased significantly.

We used our local Comfort Weighted Blankets company for the weighted lap pads and blankets. I love having a local company that uses the softest fabric in our own choices.

 

SPINNING OFFICE CHAIRS

I know, I know… What teacher would really allow this? But, I’m only writing about my crazy sensory processing OT ideas if they’ve successfully been implemented in a teacher’s classroom. So, I promise that it has really worked!

Some children have very high movement needs and spinning is a highly intense type of vestibular input (movement) that meets vestibular needs faster than less intense movement. So, one option is to allow a student to spin in the office chair. Teachers most likely have a spinning office chair at their desk that isn’t always being used. Students that don’t have high movement needs will NOT want to spin in the chair or they will only be able to do so for a very short period of time.

The teacher who let a student spin in an office chair while fidgeting with paper clips found that the student participated more appropriately in the classroom, so allowed this everyday as much as he needed. The other students didn’t complain because they realized that they weren’t distracted by the student’s inappropriate behavior when sitting at his student desk and chair. Everyone functioned better! Some older students who let their teacher know they need a break and with prior approval, go into another room to spin in an office chair until their sensory system is ready to return to class and behave appropriately.

 

NOT JUST FOR KIDS!

Finally, you’ll realize that not just students want a variety of options for seating! I, personally, always prefer a wobble chair or exercise ball. This adult school employee realized that her back pain improved drastically by sitting on a disc cushion and wobble chair (after trialing some other expensive office chairs).

Thank you to all the great teachers and parents who have been willing to try out my crazy sensory OT ideas, then given honest feedback about how they’ve worked! I hope this will give you some ideas to brainstorm for your wiggly students! Teachers, I hope this is helpful and that your school will support these accommodations. Parents, this may be just what you need to take to your child’s teacher for support in the classroom. Talk with a pediatric occupational therapist for individualized guidance. Please share your experiences and any other ideas and products that are working for your students!

 

UPDATE: After ordering large quantities of this type of equipment at my school, the school secretary has told me that she prefers ordering from Amazon because of her familiarity with the ordering process, the lower shipping prices and the shorter shipping time. (Sometimes shipping prices can be so high that the order still costs more, even with a lower sales price.) I’ve added Amazon links if you also have these same concerns.

*Since writing this post, I have become part of the Amazon Affiliate Program. If you choose to buy any of these products on Amazon, I’d appreciate if you used the links through my website to help support the work I do at Yums Theraplay! Thank you!

First Grade

December 16, 2015

When was the last time you were in first grade? Lucky for me, I was there just yesterday. I’m 37 years young and still get to go to first grade. I’m also lucky enough to get the chance to just watch those bundles of energy… all kinds of energy… attention-seeking energy, excited energy, working-really-hard-to-please-your-teacher energy, frightened energy, running energy, please-come-be-my-friend energy, shy energy, I-hope-I’m-doing-this-right energy, creative energy, yelling energy, I’m-trying-to-be-so-good-but-it’s-oh-so-hard energy, wiggly energy…  Those are just a few I saw yesterday and when I go back tomorrow, I can add to that list. 

I’ve worked with children and adults with special needs in a variety of settings as an occupational therapist for almost 15 years now. My heart has always been drawn to those that are misunderstood and don’t quite fit in. Maybe that’s why I’ve been drawn to working with children with Autism, Sensory Processing Disorder and other difficulties that aren’t always understood at first glance.  

This morning when I woke, I saw a Facebook post of a beautiful, full-of-love video by Emilie Parker’s mom, Alissa Parker. The video is called Evil Did Not Win. Emilie Parker was a first grader at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut on a fateful day in December 2012. I remember driving to school to pick up my own first grader as I heard the news of the shooting and I burst into sobs. I could not drive and pulled to the side of the road, sobbing for another 5 minutes. Later in the day, I learned that close family friends were involved in this tragedy. Emilie’s family still carries the unbelievable pain from that day when Emilie didn’t return home to them. I’m in awe of Alissa and Robbie’s strength, determination, faith and love through this tragedy. I love and respect these friends and would have anticipated this kind of strength and love from them by who I’ve known them to be. I pray that I might one day have the brave faith and determination they show.

I never knew Emilie, but I imagine Emilie having the creative, working-really-hard-to-please-you, energy. I see her getting lost in a blissful imagination of her own. I picture that no adult could do anything but love this little blonde, beautiful first grader.

There is another side to the Sandy Hook story that is the most difficult to talk about, that we don’t want to talk about because we don’t want it glorified and we simply don’t have answers to the questions. I 100% agree with this. But, when I go back to first grade tomorrow, I can’t help thinking about another once-upon-a-time first grader named Adam. He was the precursor of the Adam that became the horrific part of the Sandy Hook story. Because when I see the energies of those 6-year-olds, I have to believe that he had some of those same energies I saw in first grade yesterday. And I have to believe and have faith there was another option than the outcome at Sandy Hook Elementary. What turned that energy is my question? While this question may never be answered and I am not presuming to know the answer, I do believe this is an important question to discuss for all children’s futures.

This little first grade class I was in yesterday has gained the attention of the entire school. There are a few boys in that class that are already infamously known by teachers, administrators and students. Their energy is not the appreciated kind of energy in a first grade class, and their energy can hold an entire classroom and school hostage. How can this be at just 6 years old?

I wonder about first-grade Adam in his classroom, in his house, on the playground, going to tumbling class… When he showed that unappreciated kind of energy, what was the reaction of those around him? What kind of attention did he get with that energy? And from that attention, what did he learn about himself as a 6-year-old boy that eventually grew into a horrific mass murderer?

As I watch those harder-to-manage first graders, I see them searching franticly for some kind of reassurance from their peers and especially the adults. Many times it is attention, sometimes it’s the assurance that they have a sense of control over anything, other times it’s to know they will be safe, sometimes it’s acceptance.

The majority of children know how to gain attention, control, safety and acceptance because they learn well from the environment they’ve been living in. They’ve learned how to use the energy they have to feel this way. But what about the ones who haven’t?

Did Adam learn that to get attention, it had to be a bigger and bigger act to receive attention? Did he learn that the most immediate and quickest attention was when he broke the rules or hurt someone? Did he learn that the only two ways for him to feel safe was to run away or aggressively attack whatever felt unsafe? And had he learned that he really wasn’t ever accepted by any peers or authority figures for anything he did?

As I’ve worked with children with unappreciated energy for over a decade, I am reminded every day that there are no easy or perfect solutions—absolutely none. If you happen to know one of these children, you intimately know the constant, never-ending struggle. But, hopefully, you truly love this child without end and are willing to continue this struggle every day. Please never lose hope and never give up in your search to help this child feel loved with secure boundaries. Please come back the day after you’ve “given up” on this child, to keep searching and keep loving. Because this search and this fight will most likely change daily and give you more and different answers to find than the previous day. You may physically, mentally and emotionally scream and pull your hair out. Do that, and come back, knowing your hoarse voice will heal and your hair will grow back or you can start wearing a new hairstyle with less hair. 🙂

My plea to you, parents, teachers, coaches, grandparents, friends, is that you will make this first grader or any other aged-child, to feel just as attended to, in control, safe and accepted as Emilie felt by her loving parents and caregivers. I believe that we can make just as much difference with the struggling first graders as we can with Congress passing gun laws for the entire nation. There are many, many small and big solutions along the way that will make a great impact, but none of them are successful without seeing the child with love and compassion. Please persevere in memory of those 20 beautiful first graders and in the memory of an innocent, first-grade Adam.