Saturday, September 24, 2011

How to Lose your Child at a Kindergarten Open House

The first day of school started out innocently enough. Charlotte was dying of excitement even though it was just a straight forward informational meeting where the kids got to meet their teachers.

Little did I know what was about to enfold.

I finally made it to the school after parking about a quarter of a mile away. We found our way to Mrs. M's class and deposited all the school supplies. We were then herded into the all-purpose room to be instructed on the ins and outs of the school's discipline system. The principal had all the kids sit in the front of the room so the parents could park comfortably on the benches.

As soon as they turned off the lights for the powerpoint presentation (yes, a power point on playground behavior. It was riveting) Tom started yelling, "Hey, turn on the lights! The lights! The lights!" so I had to take him out the back door. Unfortunately, since Charlotte was all the way in the front of the room, I couldn't give her instructions on where to meet me after the presentation, unless I wanted to make an even bigger spectacle of myself than Tommy already had.

Even as I exited the hall, I knew this was not going to end well.

I spent the rest of the presentation standing by the back door of the auditorium trying to keep Tommy from ripping cutesy kindergarten decor off the walls. As soon as the presentation ended, there was a stampede for the doors. I tried to enter against the tide of parents who were desperate to leave, but by the time I got back in, there was no sign at all of my daughter.

I rushed back out and around the hall to Char's classroom, to no avail. Charlotte was nowhere to be found. Frantically, I ran through the school, while carrying a very heavy and wiggly toddler, trying to find my sweet girl.

It didn't help that there were hundreds of kindergarteners in the throngs of people leaving the school; I couldn't spot my child in the huge lingering group no matter how hard I looked. As I tried to stay calm, I couldn't help but note how unwise this setup was. Separating kids from their parents seemed like an obviously bad idea to me.

Panicking, I finally caught sight of Danny's old speech therapist and told her I had lost my kid. The principal heard and made an announcement over the PA system.

Still no sign of my darling girl.

My heart started racing as I recalled every single episode of Law and Order SVU that I have ever watched, thinking that a school open house would be the ideal place for a pedophile to find his latest victim. I was convinced he had snatched Charlotte and was planning on stashing her in his backyard tent making her his love slave for the next 20 years, like JayCee Dugard. I wondered if I had taught Char enough survival skills for her to escape from her captor's evil clutches.

I envisioned my life without my darling daughter, who is so wonderful and fanciful. How in the world would I ever live with myself knowing my carelessness had led to her demise? How would Bil ever forgive me? How would we ever find her?

As I tried to staunch the onslaught of catastrophic thoughts, the likes of which would have made great script material for my favorite crime show, it occurred to me that Charlotte might not have been kidnapped. Instead, perhaps she was wandering the streets about to be run over by a giant SUV. Envisioning her lifeless and bloody body lying in the street almost gave me a panic attack.

A dad who had heard the commotion volunteered to go to my car to see if Charlotte had gone there looking for me. Grateful, I deposited Tommy on the floor as I waited, pacing in the lobby, praying that the dad would find Charlotte and rescue her from her abductor.

When one of Danny's old teachers offered to watch Tommy so I could go to the car, I gratefully I ran the whole way, because by that point, I realized that the dad had volunteered to find Charlotte rather eagerly. What if, instead of the Good Samaritan he appeared to be, the "father" was really a child porn producer who decided to capitalize on the fact that I had lost my kid? What if his plan was really to grab her and run, so he could make millions off my poor girl?

Gasping for air, I finally arrived at the van, where the wonderful, kind, saintly dad was standing with the van door open. He had found Charlotte but decided to just wait for me at the car, so as not to scare Charlotte.

And my darling girl? She was sitting calmly in her booster seat, waiting for me. She munched some scavenged, stale crackers as she scolded me for getting lost.

Back at the school, a few teachers and therapists were gathered around my screaming toddler, who thankfully quieted down when he saw me. I explained to everyone that Charlotte had gone to the car to wait for me.

Ms. Jenni glanced at us and said, "Wow, she's so calm. She doesn't seem upset at all. I am impressed!"

And I thought, She's right. I did handle this all rather well. I didn't scream or have a breakdown or curl up in the fetal position and bawl, and I didn't yell at Charlotte when I found her. I'm a superstar. I handled this beautifully. And I am so grateful for Ms. Jenni for noticing. That was so sweet of her to validate me like that. I should treat myself to an ice cream cone for this. I really deserve it.

Ms. Jenni, breaking into my reverie again marvelled at my calm demeanor.

I thought, You know, I have never considered myself as particularly good at crises, but maybe all along I've been wrong. Look at how well I handled this! I have nerves of STEEL, man, STEEL. I was as calm as Detective Benson on SVU--hey, maybe I should become a detective.... I would be so good at that. I notice details and am obviously good in scary, traumatic situations.

Which is when I noticed that Ms. Jenni was looking at Charlotte, not me.


Well, yeah, I guess Charlotte was pretty calm.

Of course, Charlotte had never seen Law and Order, so she had no idea of the danger she had been in. It's no surprise that she stayed calm. She knew where she was that whole time. I was the one who should have been panicking.

Whatever. Obviously, Ms. Jenni wasn't nearly as validating as I had thought.

I promptly ushered the kids out the door and headed straight to the ice cream place.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Homework: Teaching Organizational Skills to Individuals with ASD

Danny's been having some difficulties with homework and organization, so I was excited when Autism Digest gave me permission to post the following article on my blog. The tips here are ones that I think could help any kid who struggles with organization issues.

As Appeared in the July/August 2007 issue.
Reprinted with permission of publisher.

Homework: Teaching Organizational Skills to Individuals with ASD
By Michelle Garcia Winner, CCC-SLP

Our daily lives are made up of an endless stream of thoughts, decisions, actions and reactions
to the people and environment in which we live. The internal and external actions fit together, sometimes seamlessly sometimes not, largely dependent upon a set of invisible yet highly important skills we call Executive Functioning (EF). These skills, which involve planning, organizing, sequencing, prioritizing, shifting attention, and time management can be well-developed in some people (think traffic controllers, wedding planners, business CEOs, etc.) and less developed in others. They are vital in all parts of life, from making coffee to running a profitable business. The skills develop naturally, without specific, formal training, and we all have
them to some degree – or at least, we all assume we all have them.

Things are never quite as simple as they seem, and these EF skills are no exception. They require a multitiered hierarchy of decisions and actions, all coming together within the
framework of time, knowledge and resources.

Imagine trying to navigate life when EF skills are impaired or nonexistent, as they are with individuals on the autism spectrum. For most of us, our imagination won’t stretch that far. Therefore, we assume all these kids – especially those who are “bright” - have EF skills
and we act and react to our spectrum children or students as if they did.

Nowhere does this EF skill deficit cause more turmoil than in the area of homework, producing monstrous levels of anxiety and dread in students, parents and teachers alike. The myriad
of details that need to be accomplished in a student’s class, school day or week can overwhelm even the healthiest student; it can shut down our ASD kids.

I am regularly asked: if tasks are so overwhelming to their EF systems, should we just avoid having students deal with them? The answer is an unequivocal emphatic “NO!” Organizational skills are life skills, not just school skills, and even though they are “mandatory prerequisites” for succeeding at school, like social skills they are rarely directly taught. Few states include explicit teaching of EF skills in their “standards of education.”

So where do we start? First, by understanding how complex organizational systems become by the time students reach middle school. We can only be good teachers if we appreciate the
demands the skills we teach place on our students.

Second, by understanding organization as a skill set, which involves static and dynamic systems.
Static organizational systems and skills are structured: same thing, same time, same place, same way. Static organizational tasks are introduced in kindergarten, first and second grade. We
break down tasks and ask students to explicitly complete very defined units of information, at a certain time and place. Write your name at the top of the page, read the instructions, complete
the work, when done turn the paper over and sit quietly until time is up.

Dynamic organizational systems and skills involve constant adjustments to priorities, workloads, timeframes, tasks and places. They are less teacher directed and more student-directed.
By 4th grade, teachers are introducing dynamic assignments to students with moderate levels of support. Soon after that we expect students to be able to manage increasingly dynamic workloads with little extra support or direct teaching. By high school, almost all school and homework has dynamic components requiring students to use EF skills to allocate time, resources, places to work, etc.

Here’s the good news: most of us understand that to tackle a dynamic task we have to break it down into its static elements. The dynamic part of the task requires thinking; the static part
of the task requires doing. A dynamic assignment such as writing an essay requires a significant portion of the task be spent thinking about the topic before the static tasks of actually writing
the paper at a table, at a specified hour, etc. One of the great challenges for our spectrum students is learning to break down dynamic tasks into more concrete, static chunks of work.
Fostering organizational skills in students with ASD requires an evolutionary approach towards teaching students, one that is ideally started at an early age. Students hone organizational
skills starting in preschool, when we first ask them to clean up their toys.

Teachers can accurately identify organized versus disorganized students as early as kindergarten. By 4th grade teachers expect students to be proficient with EF skills.
However, the reality is that the majority of our ASD students of all ages desperately need help with homework, specifically, and EF skills in general.

Help is available. The following 10 steps illuminate specific aspects of EF skills that increase students’ static and dynamic organizational coping mechanisms. While these steps are interrelated and synergistic, avoid trying to teach them all at the same time. Each may be difficult to grasp and master for the student with ASD; allow learning to take its own pace. Keep expectations realistic, talk things through regularly, and probe for misunderstandings or
miscommunication. Learning EF skills is a dynamic system of its own, with its static components.

Make sure your child or student experiences success and feels competent at each stage of
the process.

10 Steps to Foster
Organization Skills

1. Clearly define what needs to be done

Too often, parents and schools view organization goals too simply: “the student must write the assignment in his planner.” Clearly this is not nearly enough detail for most tasks and may
not even be the best starting goal for a particular student. Adults must be organized in their own thinking if they are to effectively teach students with EF deficits this skill. Go beyond giving out
assignments; help the student understand how to also approach the task from an organizational standpoint.

Adults must be organized in their own thinking if they are to effectively teach students
with EF deficits this skill.

2. Move it with motivation
Almost all students with weak organizational skills also struggle with motivation to accomplish homework tasks. Parents and teachers often don’t realize this lack of motivation can stem
from feeling overwhelmed by the task demands. Students with the greatest motivational challenges are often our most intelligent students (e.g. those with high IQ scores). We often assume “smart” means “organized” and say things like “come on, I know you can do this, I know you are smart.” Yet, they may have the hardest time motivating themselves when overwhelmed
because they have never had to work at learning. Learning just happened if they stayed attentive.

By adolescence, students need to appreciate that completing work - even work that seems somewhat ridiculous to them – has its rewards. It establishes them as hard working in the eyes of others, improves their grades and increases feelings of self-worth through meeting their grade level academic expectations. However, as obvious as this sounds, this level of cause-effect
can still be too overwhelming to some spectrum students because it requires delayed gratification. Many students need to start at a much more concrete level of motivation, with very small work steps combined with reward early in the task completion process.

For example, if a student cannot easily work for an hour, have him work successfully on a single part of the task for just 10 minutes before he gets to pause and congratulate himself. Self motivation increases when students feel confident in understanding and accomplishing the task before them.

It doesn’t matter how “well” you teach students these EF skills; if they are unmotivated, they will not implement the ideas. Work directly on helping students tackle and overcome motivation

3. Prepare the environment
Most adults familiar with helping students “get organized” understand this point. Establish a dedicated workspace for homework that includes the essential tools: pen, pencil, paper, etc. Color
coding tasks, making sure the student has an organized binder, possibly access to a time-timer ( create structures that promote success during homework time.

4. Chunk and time it
Assignments that sound coherent and structured to teachers can still overwhelm a student with EF challenges.

For example: “write a report focusing on the economy, culture, weather and climate of a specific country.”

Clear enough, you think? Maybe to us, but not to them. Make sure the student understands how to “chunk” an assignment (break it down into smaller pieces) and how the individual parts
create the larger whole. For example, not all students will know their report needs four sections, essentially “miniessays” worked on separately and then joined together.

Furthermore, once they “chunk” the project students also need to predict how long each chunk will take to complete. The majority of our students with poor organizational skill have a
resounding inability to predict how long projects will take across time. In fact, they tend to be weak in all aspects of interpreting and predicting time.

Consider this: Is there anything you do without first predicting how long it will take? We “time map” everything, gauging how the task will or will not fit into what we’re doing now, an hour
from now, later in the day or later in the week.

Homework functions in much the same way. Students are more willing to tackle homework when they can reliably predict how long they will have to work on the task. For example, a student will usually calmly do math if it should only take 5-10 minutes. However, for those spectrum students who can’t predict time, the nebulous nature of the activity incites anxiety such that they may cry 45 minutes over doing a 10-minute math assignment.

When the student does not – or cannot - consider time prediction as part of his organizational skill set, he is likely to waste a lot of time rather than use time to his advantage.

5. Use visual structures
As the school years progress, homework shifts from mostly static tasks doled out by one teacher to mostly dynamic tasks assigned by many different individuals. We expect students to
self-organize and know how to juggle the many pieces of learning that make up each class, grade and level of education. Yet, this valuable skill is never directly taught!

Visual long-term mapping charts, such as a Gantt Chart, ( can help students plan and monitor multiple activities. These bar type graphs allow a student to visually track multiple projects across time, determine when they are due and how much time is
available to work on each. For example, a history paper may be assigned in February and due in late March; a line would run from early February to late March to indicate the time allocated to
the project. A math project assigned in early March is also due in late March; another line would represent this project.

Visually the student can see that two big projects are due at about the same time, and both are worth significant grade points. This then helps the student understand why he should not
wait until the last minute to start one or both assignments. Gantt charts are frequently used in business, but have yet to make it into student software for school/homework planning. However,
they are easy to create and use at home or in the classroom. For students with ASD, they are invaluable tools for organization.

Visual structures can represent entire projects and then also be used for individual chunks, creating the visual organizational framework students with EF deficits need. Once assignments are understood as needing to be worked on across time, we can encourage students to chunks tasks to be worked on during specific weeks, then make related lists of things to do on specific days.

6. Prioritize and plan daily
Learning to prioritize is a valuable skill and helps the student get things done. Keep in mind that many of us make daily lists but don’t always complete all tasks on our list, and that priority
is largely based on the value we place on the assignment. Within the school setting, “value” is often dictated by the teacher. Priority is a factor of the task’s value overall, its deadline
and the time to complete it. However, just because a task is due does not mean a student needs to make a decision to complete it, especially if it is a low priority or low value task to the
student or the teacher. For example, during her sophomore year in high school my daughter was looking at her math grades online. I looked over her shoulder and saw she had mostly
A’s and B’s but noticed she had two F’s. I exclaimed, “Robyn, you have two F’s”, to which she replied, “Mom, they were each worth one point. They were hardly worth doing.” Robyn realized
that in light of the many assignments she had to juggle for all her classes, projects with the least point value were not worth doing; she’d rather save her time and effort for the larger, more important projects.

With a prioritized plan in hand, many students will still struggle with actually working on the tasks. Even students with high intelligence may have difficulty getting themselves to
work on projects not of their liking. Their baseline attention span may be no more than 7-10 minutes. (Test one of your student’s baseline attention span by observing how long he can
attend to mundane projects without self-distracting. You may be surprised by how short it is!)

Help students succeed with their daily schedule by teaching them to take frequent small breaks at the end of their baseline attention span. For example, a graduate student in theology
found he could only push himself through 10-minute work cycles before feeling overwhelmed or internally distracted.

He used a visual time-timer and gave himself a short stretch break every 10 minutes. Once he completed a number of these short work cycles he gave himself a larger reward. The
key to using self-reward is to make sure the small reward isn’t likely to be distracting or absorbing (computer games, TV, reading a book). Instead make these small breaks quick and
refreshing, just to refocus attention: sensory based activities (stretching or movement), a small snack, a quick trip to the bathroom or pencil sharpener.

7. Hunt and gather
Simply put: students need to plan time into their schedule to locate different resources to complete a task. For example, research at the library might be a “chunk” they plan for
on their homework list (don’t forget travel time!).

Keep in mind that many of us make daily lists but don’t always complete all tasks on our list.

8. Consider perspective
Homework is more effectively completed when students start by considering the teacher’s perspective before diving into the assignment. An assignment done well is one that meets the
teacher’s expectations and follows the teacher’s instructions. A high school student went to great lengths to develop a computer program for his computer programming class. His teacher came to me exasperated, explaining that while well done, the project was totally unrelated to the class assignment.

Parent perspectives enter into the homework plan also. Many parents expect children to finish homework before watching TV. Even though children may have accomplished a great deal
of homework (in their mind “enough”), trouble can still erupt because it wasn’t “finished” in the parent’s mind.

Perspective taking can be quite overwhelming to many students with social learning and organizational problems. A strategy called “social behavior mapping” (Winner, 2007) can help students understand how expectations, actions and reactions affect not only how we are viewed by others, but how their responses ultimately impact the way we view ourselves.

9. Communicate and then communicate some more
Homework assignments often result in students needing help from others. Knowing when and how to ask for help can be challenging for students with social learning and organizational
weaknesses. Avoid assuming students – especially “bright” students - should intuitively know how to ask for help, clarification or even how to collaborate with others on assignments. These
skills are not nearly as simple as they seem and may need to be explicitly taught by the special education teacher or speech language pathologist at your school. Tip: as students age into middle
school and beyond, most are turning to their peer group rather than their teacher for help. This fosters peer support networks desperately needed for success in college and later life.

10. Completion and Reward
Having a clearly defined “end” to a task is important for the concrete thinking minds of students with ASD. Be sure the child knows what “finished” means, both at school and at home. For
instance, a homework assignment is not truly “done” until it is turned in to the teacher at school. While homework turn-in boxes (static) are commonly found in elementary school, they all
but vanish during middle and high school years when even the act of turning in homework becomes dynamic.

Make sure your students know where to turn in homework. Also, parents should save big celebrations for completed projects until the assignments are actually turned in. Some students
may need reminder systems set up to make sure work is turned in on time. Visual notes, PDA messages or watch timers can be used to help.

At home, “finished” homework yields its own rewards when students can engage in more personally pleasing activities, such as a computer game, watching TV, reading for pleasure, etc.
Even our favorite activities have a finite time frame attached to them before it is time to go to bed. Many of these organizational strategies can be used to help a student learn to shut down a
favorite activity and get his brain ready for bed.

“Planning takes time!” This is a message we need to constantly reinforce with our spectrum students. “Teaching organizational skills takes time, across months and even years!” This is a
message we need to reinforce to parents and teachers. Whether students are using organizational skills for homework, doing chores, preparing for a weekend activity or something
as simple as getting a snack, as children grow and develop, tasks become increasingly complex and dynamic with each passing year. Teachers and parents need to work together, while
children are still in elementary school, to identify and teach any or all of the 10 steps mentioned in this article that are problematic for the spectrum child.

In doing so, we give children the tools not just to handle homework, but to be successful in all areas of life.

Michelle Garcia Winner is internationally
recognized as an innovative clinician,
enthusiastic workshop presenter and prolific
author in the field of social thinking
and social cognitive functioning. Visit for additional
Allen, D. (2001). Getting Things Done. The art of
stress free productivity. Penguin Books: New York.
(recommended by an adult with AS)
Dawson, P. and Guare. R. (2004). Executive Skills in
Children and Adolescents: A Practical Guide to
Assessment and Intervention. The Guilford Press:
New York.
Giles-Brown, C. (1993). Practical Time, Language and
Living Series. Imaginart.
Hyerle, D. (1996). Visual Tools for Constructing
Knowledge. Association for Supervision and Curriculum
Development: Virginia.
Myles, B. & Adreon, D. (2001). Asperger Syndrome
and Adolescence: Practical Solutions for School Success.
AAPC: Kansas.
Soper, M. (1993). Crash Course for Study Skills.
Linguisystems: Illinois.
(highly recommended for building a curriculum!)
Winner, M. (2005). “Strategies for Organization:
Preparing for Homework and the Real World.”
The Gray Center: Grand Rapids, Michigan. (www.
Winner, M. (2007). Social Behavior Mapping. Think
Social Publishing, Inc.: San Jose, California.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Shameless Plug

This year has been an incredible year of opportunity. I am featured in two books and am so excited about it. I never thought I would ever be published and now because of these wonderful bloggers, I have been given an incredible opportunity!

First up is Sensational Journeys: 48 Personal Stories of Sensory Processing Disorder by Hartley Steiner. Hartley has compiled stories from dozens of families, and what an amazing collection this is!

If you are interested in buying this book, Future Horizons Publishing has a great deal. They have given me a code that I can share with you. This code will give you 15% off anything you buy there, including conferences, and you get free shipping. Unlike Amazon, there is no minimum. The code is PH. Pretty easy, huh?

The next book is called Wit and Wisdom from the Parents of Special Needs Kids. According to Amazon, it "brings together dozens of the best writers in the blogosphere, sharing their stories of both the challenges and rewards of raising children with autism and other cognitive disabilities."

Don't ask me how I managed to get invited to contribute to this book! I am so honored to be included in it, though. Check it out at Amazon.