Friday, September 28, 2012


Dr. Temple Grandin has spent her adult life studying animal behavior and working with slaughterhouses to make them more safe, efficient, and most of all, humane.  She has designed facilities all over the world and something like 50% of beef is processed in plants she designed.

Temple has won awards from Animal Rights groups and she was named as one of the top 100 most influential people by Time magazine in 2010.  She has written tons of books and she is a professor of Animal Science at Colorado State University.

And she has autism.

I have been an enormous fan of Dr. Grandin ever since I read her story "An Anthropologist on Mars" by Oliver Sacks.  When HBO did a special on her life I gained an even better insight into her struggles and triumphs.  And it renewed my gratitude to Temple, gratitude for being willing to share her knowledge and experience about autism with the world.

For those of us with loved ones on the autism spectrum, adults with autism are an invaluable resource.  They can tell us what it is like for our children--something our kids often have great difficulty articulating for themselves.  I am not over exaggerating when I say that Temple Grandin is one of my heroes.

Imagine my glee when I heard she would be speaking in a college only 45 minutes away.  We bought our tickets weeks ago and have been giddy with excitement.

And her talk last night was even better than I had anticipated.

What impressed me the most was how down-to-earth and practical her advice was.  She advised parents to use kids' strengths and special interests to help them socialize.  If a kid loves computer, enroll him in the computer club at school.  Kids will have an easier time making friends with people while bonding over shared interests.

She emphasized setting goals for the future and working towards them.  When someone asked her about inclusiveness in school, she said that as a young child, it is important for a kid to be included and taught social skills.  As they get older, however, more emphasis needs to be placed on preparing for the workforce, and  we need to be flexible depending on our child's needs.  She mentioned homeschooling and online classes as possible alternatives to mainstream school.  Through it all, Temple never prescribed a one-size-fits-all treatment; instead the encouraged parents to figure out what is best for their individual children.

I cannot do justice to Grandin's talk.  The two hours she spoke were chock full of valuable insight and advice.  I have a renewed sense of what we are doing right and where we need to redouble our efforts.

I appreciate all the practical advice. I value the insight Temple provided.  All of that was undeniably helpful.
But the best part of the night was the appreciation I gained for Danny.  Temple repeatedly said that she would never cure herself;  it's the autism that allows her to think in pictures.

 She said things like, "Autistic people often focus on objects rather than people, but we need people like that.  Otherwise we'd never have computers."  Or "someone with autism would have never made the mistake that was made at the Fukushima power plant, who on earth would put emergency water pumps in a basement?"  or "People who come up with new inventions don't need to chit chat with others.  They're too busy."

She regularly pointed out that it is the differences in the way our brains work that make us unique, and we need all types of thinkers in this world.

This really resonated with me.  It gave me a better appreciation for Danny and the way his mind works.  For years now, we have understood that he thinks in a much different way than most.  And it has astounded me time and again how his different outlook has helped him find a really unique solution to a problem.  Temple's talk inspired me to continue to use Danny's passions to help him socialize and learn.

And she has reminded me that my job is not to make Danny conform to society.  Sure, we'll teach him manners and good social skills.  We will teach him to follow rules and laws and be considerate to others.  But we do not need to change the way he thinks.


For more posts on fans, check out the Spin Cycle.

Second Blooming

Thursday, September 13, 2012

It's about the sanity

I sat on the park bench crying inconsolably.  I was too upset to go home; I didn't feel like explaining myself to Bil or the kids, so I just sat there sobbing, so angry at Danny's teachers.

I had just had a terribly frustrating meeting with them about how he "couldn't focus."  The teachers gave no suggestions, only complaints.  It was obvious they were giving up on him for the year.  The special ed teacher kept talking about how much better third grade would be.  It was only March, but they were already giving up on my kid.

I felt helpless and sad and hopeless, as I sat on that bench staring at the houses that lined the street surrounding the park.  Trying fruitlessly to come up with solutions, I wracked my brain.  But there was nothing.  I had nothing at all.  I was so drained and confused and angry.  And I didn't know what to do to feel better.

Then, I had a thought.  I would go to Zumba class.  That would buy me some time before I had to rehash the meeting with Bil.  I just wanted to be alone, and Zumba seemed like a good place for that. Though crowded, it's dark and noisy--no need to talk to, or even look at, anyone.

So, I composed myself and headed to the gym.

As soon the bass tones of  the music filled the room, I felt relief.  As I danced, I was actually overcome with a peace and an overflow of emotion. I started to get choked up, but this time it wasn't out of hopelessness, it was blessed peace and release.  I knew I still had to figure out how to help Danny, but at that moment, I could revel in the movement and how good it felt.  As I cha-cha'd and shimmied, I began to feel that life was manageable again.  I would figure it out.

By the time the workout was over, I felt like a new woman.

I have been working out pretty regularly, since my teens, in an attempt to manage my burgeoning weight.  Aerobics videos, walking, biking all to reduce the size of my hips, thighs and stomach.  I knew that if I ever wanted to look like Kate Winslet, I should be exercising everyday.

It hasn't been until recent years that I realized exercise was about much more than my appearance and weight.

It is the one thing standing between me and depression.

I first realized this when I was pregnant with Tommy.  My first trimester hit me hard emotionally. I was already overwhelmed with my parenting duties and the hormonal onslaught only made me more scared, lonely and weepy.  I couldn't make it through the day without crying.  And these crying jags were not just the kind you have from watching a sappy Hallmark commercial.  Oh, no, these episodes included me feeling like things were completely dismal, that I was the worst mother in the world and I would never be able to handle another child.

I had almost decided to talk to my doctor about medication when I popped in an exercise video. To my surprise, I starting smiling almost as soon as the warm-up was done, and I didn't cry once the rest of the day.  After that, I knew that if I were going to make it through the pregnancy sanity intact, working out had to be a priority.

That episode on the park bench last year reminded me that I have to make time for exercise.  Though I rarely look forward to the actual work out, I always feel better afterwards. More telling is when I take a break for a week.  All of a sudden, my emotions are more difficult to control.  My stress levels raise exponentially, and I don't sleep as well.

So, I try to make it a priority to work out, no matter what is happening.  I sometimes feel guilty about the time I am taking away from my family, but really we all benefit from it.

I'll never have Kate Winslet's body, but some things are more important than looks.


For more posts about exercise, visit the Spin Cycle.

Second Blooming

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Review: The Manga Guide to Linear Algebra

The Mange Guide to Linear Algebra

     “If you can't explain something simply, you don't understand it well enough.” 
–Albert Einstein

Hi, I’m Bil.  I like math… a lot.  My degree is in Electronics Engineering and Technology, and I worked as a math tutor in college.  I often enjoy sitting down with a tough everyday problem that can be solved with intuition and/or mathematical optimization (Pinewood Derby, anyone?) …anything that gives me a chance to sharpen the old math tooth again.

Now that I’m a parent of three, I often think about what it’s going to take to create learning opportunities that could inspire a love (or even medium curiosity) for math and science in my children.  After all, if we are to overcome the downward drag of cultural apathy for math, we should give some serious thought to how we approach these subjects at home.

When I came across the “Manga Guide to Linear Algebra"   I just had to see what the “Manga Guide”  series was all about.  Comic book/Text book mashups?  Yes, and on a wide variety of meaty subjects—Biochemistry, Calculus, Databases, Electricity, Molecular Biology, Physics, Regression Analysis, Special Relativity, Statistics, oh, and *the Universe*.  (Bonus-- not only do the books have a linear plot [hint: that was a math joke] complete with tension, drama and romance, but math and science-wise they totally deliver the goods.)

I can’t remember if Professor P. Papadopoulos *ever* explained to me or the rest of the class how to actually use calculus to solve a problem we might encounter.  Day one, we dived right into delta process of derivatives, and it was a white knuckle race against time to finally conquer integration by parts in the second class.   The “Manga Guide” didn’t do that—I wasn’t suddenly bombarded by strange symbols and expected to sink or swim while the author moved along to the next logical tier.  Rather, I was treated to  brief, illustrated and meaningful exchanges between the two main characters, Reiji and Misa, as Reiji thoughtfully marches out the curriculum and Misa asks the questions we should all ask at some point--"What is Linear Algebra, Exactly?”  As I read Reiji’s thoughtful explanation, I knew I’d found something unique and wonderful—a clearer picture of how these processes are used, and why this subject matters.  It’s the little things that give us a surer footing in our learning.

For a free downloadable chapter, click on the image:

I have to give the writers an A+ for doing their homework with this series.  You can tell they have a deep understanding of their chosen subjects because the characters are able to explain the concepts very simply to one another.  By expounding the subject in the form of a student-to-teacher dialogue, the book avoids becoming an illustrated lecture—rather, it takes on a new form that gives the reader necessary mental white space.  Every time Misa raises a question, you get a second pass through the lesson material as Reiji’s answer either reveals an important detail, or a glimpse at the bigger picture.  It’s a very merciful, gentle style that way; you certainly won’t find yourself reading the same sentence 20 times, failing to decode it— but it isn’t a quick read, either.  I found myself reading sections a second and third time, so I could give the “Manga Guide” every chance to sink in all the more.  Whenever a standard textbook fails to create a clear picture of the concepts or methods, this series could be very useful in setting up a meaningful reintroduction, or a helpful first impression.

Who would be the ideal recipient/reader of this book series?  I'd recommend it for a pre-teen or teenager who is curious about our current body of knowledge, a school teacher (of any subject), an engineer with an action figure collection, a freshman college student that had a hard time with pre-calculus, someone who uses math and science as part of the intellectual rigor of their career, but may not necessarily be a mathematician or scientist.  

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Why I'm in love with Danny's teachers

To say that last school year was a disaster for Danny would not be an understatement.  His teachers did not understand Danny's special needs, so he ended up floundering and even failing many subjects. Unfortunately, they didn't know how to help him.

All summer I prayed that this year would be better.  I met with his special ed teacher and asked her--really pleaded with her--to recommend a good teacher for Danny.

The teachers she picked for Danny are superb.  I couldn't have asked for a better placement!

Danny spends half the day in the resource room getting extra help with reading and math in a small setting with Mrs. C.  He then spends the afternoon with Mrs. F in a regular ed classroom.

I cannot overstate how amazing I feel these women are.  In just two short weeks, they have managed to change Danny's school experience from one filled with stress and failure, to one that is challenging, but manageable.  He is finally succeeding and enjoying the learning process.

Here is a list of some of the reasons I adore Danny's new teachers:

~~When I asked Mrs. C and F to meet with Danny before school started, they were enthusiastic and willing to help.  They took time from their busy schedule the day before the first day of school and gave us a tour of Danny's new school.  Mrs. F even walked him through all the places he would go on that first day.  They encouraged him and assured him that he wasn't the only person who was nervous.  They were too.

As a result, this was the first year, in the last 6, that Danny did not cry or even get misty-eyed on the first day of school.

~~As soon as we met Mrs. F, she approached Danny and shook his hand, telling him she was glad to meet him.  Instead of addressing all her questions and comments to me, she talked almost exclusively to Danny.  And she talked to him with respect and listened to his concerns.  She never talked down to or rushed him.

~~At the end of the first week, Mrs. F called me to tell me how great Danny was doing! And Mrs. C sent a note home saying the same thing. In the last 3 weeks I have gotten more p
ositive communication from his teachers than I got all year in second grade.

~~During the call, Mrs. F mentioned that Danny struggled with his first spelling test, so she asked me if I would mind if she shortened his list.  She said that she wanted him to have some success. I readily agreed, knowing that the regular list was a bit too challenging for Dan.

I loved that Mrs. F was so proactive in making modifications for Danny.  She didn't wait for our IEP meeting.  She didn't even need to consult his Special Ed teacher.  She just intuitively understood that 18 spelling words were a bit overwhelming for him.  So, she asked that we focus on the first 10 words.  This way, he would still be learning the same information, but in smaller chunks to make it less stressful for him.

~~His teachers are going out of their way to support Danny in his social interactions.  They prompt him to talk to others and encourage him to learn his classmates' names.

I could probably list about 20 more reasons why these teachers are excellent, but I won't bore you.  I cannot adequately express what a relief it is to have such caring, intuitive, hard-working teachers for my son this year.  I feel like this is a crucial year and these women are helping to make school an enjoyable place, rather than a stressful one for Dan.

I wish second grade hadn't been such a bad experience.  I wish his teacher from last year could see how well he is doing now, so maybe she'd realize she could have helped him more, but I guess it doesn't matter.

The only thing that matters is that Danny is getting exactly what he needs, thanks to amazing teachers who go above and beyond the call of duty.  They probably have no idea what an enormous impact they are having on Danny's life, but I hope I can somehow thank them enough for all that they are doing.

For more posts on education, visit the Spin Cycle.

Second Blooming