Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Fierce Wonderings

When I got to Alexa's Parent Teacher Conference this month, I was overjoyed to be handed multiple examples of Alexa's work in the 3rd grade classroom.  My favorite piece was written in Alexa's handwriting and mounted on a repurposed wallpaper sample together with photo of my girl.
Here's what it said
Alexa's Fierce Wonderings
1. Why can't I go to school on a digger?
2. Why can't I drive a digger?
3. Why can't I play with (a) ball all the time?
4. Why can't I dig with my hands?
5. Why can't I drive?
She also filled out her own evaluation of her performance.  A list of statements from "I look after my belongings." to "I stay on task." was given an Always, Sometimes, Almost Never rating.  Mr B assured us that they had explained what Always, Sometimes and Never meant, and Alexa had done her own unprompted ratings.  They were completely in line with what an adult would have written given the same eval.  
If you are a parent of a child like Alexa who can easily be underestimated, then you will know how proud I was.  I have always known how many wonderful thoughts Alexa has in her head, but it's always a joy when she's given an opportunity to reveal her ideas to others. 
I know that the "Fierce Wonderings" project was completed with assistance in forming complete sentences, but I also know that she provided the topics with her AAC device, and that they are accurate representations of the things she'd like to know!
I have loved our experience of 3rd grade with Mr. B, who naturally designs his science and social studies work in a way that makes it easy for all learners to participate to the maximum extent of their abilities.  Alexa has learned so much this year and has participated in so many ways that would never have been possible if we had a teacher who loved worksheets more than hands-on projects.  This year has given us so much more than one happy year, it has shown us what is possible with appropriately designed instruction.  It has reassured me that placing Alexa in the same class as her same age peers is the right choice, and given me further proof that she excels in that environment.   

Sunday, January 13, 2013

The IEP meeting that never ended..

I have been involved in multiple committees this year related to Special Education, and I've been learning how to speak up in groups of people, yet I get stomach cramps and shaking hands when it comes to explaining what we want for Alexa in the classroom. 
We have been fortunate to have a fantastic 3rd grade teacher this year who not only welcomes my daughter into his classroom, but observes her carefully and thinks about what situations are successful learning experiences for her.  He, along with her equally fantastic Special Education teacher from the Life Skills class, has made this year the most successful to date in terms of inclusive educational experiences.
Alexa loves diggers, big trucks, trains and playing ball.  Last month her third grade class did a country project where each student created a country.  There was a salt dough map, a posterboard display and her teachers programmed the text of the report into her iPad.  When I got to school for the holiday party and presentation of the countries, Alexa was standing proudly beside her country and remembered to use her talker to tell me about it. Although I know the support she needed to get  there, the teachers and aides were across the room, she did her presentation on her own.   I was so proud of her, and so happy to feel like her school was on the same  page I was.
This month is IEP month, and we did a Person Centered Plan just before winter break to help prepare for it.  I have been talking to everyone about the fact that we want a general education placement for Alexa, but everyone (the principal and teachers,) as they are bound to by law, cannot make a decision about placement without the whole team present.  The tricky part for me is, I have to explain why it's important to me that Alexa be placed in General Education with the Learning Resource Center providing support as needed, rather than the Life Skills classroom with as much general education time as possible.
I have been thinking about it long and hard, and I think it comes down to this.  The Life Skills class is a "self-contained" classroom, which is a segregated classroom.  The way you get placed in that class is by performing at least two standard deviations below average in academic testing, or by having an IQ test on which you score less than a certain number.  So it's a segregated classroom based on not being smart enough according to standard tests.  Now, aside from the fact that I've be told that a ten point difference in IQ test performance is not significant, that the test isn't accurate at that IQ, how would  I explain that to one of Alexa's classmates when they ask what Life Skills is and why Alexa goes there?  I don't want to teach children that Alexa or any other child isn't smart enough to be in the same class they are, that in fact, she isn't even "smart" enough to be learning in the LRC?  I won't.  I don't want any child to grow up thinking that it's okay to send kids away if they don't learn as quickly as their peers.  I don't want Alexa's friends or Alexa herself to ever doubt that she is a smart, capable person.
If you're thinking I'm in denial, I'd challenge you to go a whole day without using your voice to communicate.  As you type, search for the words you need in your communication device, or try to use sign language in an English speaking world, imagine you are 8 and that your fingers don't work exactly the way you want them to, and you don't know how to spell everything yet.  It would be pretty hard to show the world how "smart" you are.  Then imagine you get sent off to a classroom with other kids who also struggle to communicate, and paraprofessionals who are always hurrying you to one thing or another. 
Maybe you hope that you can perform better on that next IQ test, though it's pretty hard when the psychologist giving it to you doesn't read your sign language, and they ask you questions about things you aren't interested in, but maybe then you could hang out with other kids who talk about kid stuff, and like to play ball and iPad games, and who you can watch to figure out how to do stuff.  Maybe then you won't have to go to that "special" classroom-though it's pretty clear from their facial expressions and tone of voice, that your classmates don't think that classroom is for awesome kids.
I know that Alexa isn't at the same level in reading and math as her classmates, and I know that she need's "specially designed instruction," I just want her to go the LRC for this like every other kid who needs extra support to succeed academically.  I want people to assume that what Alexa can express to us is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of what she thinks and knows.
So we had the IEP meeting this week, but after 2 hours we had just barely finished the current progress part of the meeting, so we scheduled the second half for two weeks out, and I have to worry for two more weeks about how I explain all of this, respectfully, to a group of teachers and specialists whose personal opinions on the matter I have yet to discern. 

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Could I have a word please?

I'm beginning to feel like I never write a post unless I've got some big advocacy subject to talk about, but lately we've been having some regular kid stuff complicated by disability.  Alexa's growing and learning this year in many wonderful ways, and participating more in her general ed classroom. 
Her understanding of the world and her need to communicate her wants and needs to us have suddenly raced ahead of the vocabulary we have on her talker.  For over a month now she's been having major meltdowns on a daily basis because either A. I don't understand what she wants to do, where she wants to go, what's she wants on her talker or B. I understand but the answer is no (we will not be going to the bounce house every day etc..)  It's like playing pictionary/charades while Alexa is crying and yelling at you...sometimes for an hour or more.
Today she had her first major meltdown at school-I went to find her for library, and she was in speech therapy crying and trying to tell the SLP and the Educational Assistant something that she wanted to be put in her iPad, but none of us understood her signing, and she couldn't spell it.  We eventually got Bob the Builder, a crane, a digger, Thomas the Tank Engine and a couple of other things in there, but she was still crying and trying to say more when we made her go to lunch and I left.  It's really difficult to watch how hard she has to fight for every word she wants to say, but it is good to see her so sure that she can get her point across and to fight so hard for it.  It would be so much worse if she'd given up..
Unfortunately it's pretty hard on me, I don't deal well with her screaming for hours on end, and she always focuses it on me because I'm the one person she knows might understand her.  Unfortunately I can't figure out how to help her accept disappointments.  I've tried everything I can think of, I try to console her for one loss with something else fun, but she holds on so tight to what she wants that sometimes there just isn't anything equally desirable available to divert her from it.   So she screams and screams and signs vehemently and my stomach knots up tighter and tighter.  I can deal with it when she's just mad that she can't have what she wants, that's a learning process that all humans have to go through, but I hate it that I don't know what word she wants sometimes, a kid shouldn't have to fight so hard for words..

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Person Centered Planning Facilitator Training

This week I had the fantastic good fortune to attend Person Centered Planning Facilitator Training taught by Debra McClean who works at OTAC (Oregon Technical Assistance Corporation) in Salem.  For those of you who haven't heard of PCP, this is her description: "A process that assists an individual to plan for the future.  It is most effective when facilitated by someone who can assist the individual and those close to him/her to gain a clearer understanding of the individual and imagine creative future possibilities.    There are several recipes for this process, but all result in an Action Plan based upon the individual's gifts and desires for the future."
We learned the process for a day and a half, watched Debra facilitate a plan, practiced a few times with imaginary individuals, and then on Thursday, in groups of 2-3, facilitated a plan for a real person.  As you might guess, this process is wonderful because it is all about seeing what a person can do and does well, and then creating an action plan.
I will be doing one more observed PCP meeting, and then I will pay back the OCDD (Oregon Council on Developmental Disabilities) who paid for my training by doing at least 3 PCPs per year for members of my community free of charge.  Because this is part of OCDD's commitment to supporting families, these plans are for individuals under the age of 21.  Anyone who has a family member experiencing disability in that age group and needs a plan is encouraged to contact me to request one.  I love this process, so I am very excited about doing these.  Anyone who specifically could participate in a meeting on November 29 or December 14 (or maybe 15?) and who would be willing to be my apprenticeship family would be greatly appreciated!
Meanwhile, Alexa is learning to create new sentences requesting things she wants using her reading folders from school.  This takes a lot of creativity, particularly when she needs to say something that isn't available, and she only does it after she's cried and yelled at us for 20 minutes or more and we still haven't guessed what she wants.  Today after gymnastics she wanted to go somewhere, and David thought she wanted to go to Panera, I thought she wanted to go swimming.  I thought she was just mad because she didn't want to eat lunch first.  She wouldn't come in the house, and was screaming and crying in our parking lot for about 15 minutes, finally it started raining, so David carried her inside, and I got her talker and created a visual schedule saying lunch, get ready, go swimming.  Finally she went to her talker program and wrote "children house".  Then I remembered that we went to the Wacky Indoor Bounce the other day and realized that's where she wanted to go.  She was so relieved that I finally got it.  While it's hard for us to listen to the screaming, and sometimes she's just mad that she isn't getting her way, I'm so excited about her using her talker this way.  Thursday she created a 5 word sentence asking for me to put her "Where's my water" game back on her talker.  It must be so frustrating to be playing a guessing game whenever you want something that your parents can't figure out and that isn't pre-programmed into her talker.  She's also learning to type out words, so  I have such big hopes for the future.

Friday, July 27, 2012

I am calm

I'm feeling chatty today, and I've just got to share with someone...so let me tell you how things are around here.  Alexa is growing, blooming, blossoming, learning, and just being generally awesome this summer.  There is a caveat however, she is also stubborn as a rock sometimes, and I do mean a rock, somehow she temporarily increases the gravitational field underneath her when she doesn't want to move. 

She started summer camps at Kidspirit this week; she goes in the afternoons from 1-4:30, and Monday and Tuesday were very hard in terms of getting Alexa dressed and moving.  The difficulty of summer is the very flexibility of our schedule, and I fell victim to the allure of not having a specific place to be the whole morning.  Alexa has Where's my Water on her iPad, and she plays that game for hours, and when I start saying "Alexa, it's time to get dressed," she's too intent on playing her game to listen, and furthermore, she senses that I haven't hit the point yet where I'm going to force her to do it, so she ignores me.  I get distracted by whatever it is I'm doing on my computer, and so about every 5 minutes for the next hour I remind her that she needs to get dressed so she can eat breakfast.  After an hour or so of this, I begin to be frustrated and take away the iPad and try to make her move to her room to get dressed.  She gets angry that I took her game away and does her gravity trick, and the real battle begins.  There are time outs, and yelling and arms crossed and heels dug in, and she is finally dressed and eating breakfast about 3 hours after we started.  By the second day of this, I was nearly hysterical, there are at least 5 more weeks of summer, and these are camp days when I have 3.5 hours to myself and if I can't manage this, how will I manage when David goes out of town for a week in August?   After I calm down enough to think clearly, I realize that I can in fact change this.  (Remember Elven's book?  If you haven't read it, you should.  I have no idea how to write his last name properly so forgive me Mr. E)  I remember Elven's suggestion, that blaming the problem on the other person takes away my power to change it.  During the school year we have the same stubbornness about getting dressed, but it's compressed into about 45 minutes because the bus comes at 7:30 so I need to stick to a schedule so Alexa will know what to expect.  I created some schedules in First, Then (another great app-simple visual scheduling) and now, she can play with the talker until 8 am, and then the schedule tells her that it is time to get dressed, then eat breakfast, then get in the van etc.  Some good advice from M, to try not to take it all so personally, and a lot of thought about how Alexa's mood and attitude mirror my own led me to my big revelation this morning.  I need to make it clear to her that I am not the one she is hurting by refusal to get dressed, it's her own time to play that she is using up.  And I need to fully believe that myself.   It's not about Alexa or me "winning" the confrontation, it's her time to play that she's wasting.  This morning I was calm and matter of fact about it.  I pretended that I was bored by the whole thing, having to reset the timer every time she got out of the time out seat.  She was studying my face so intently, as though trying to figure out where red-faced yelling Mom was.

I'm sure that I will forget this again in the future, but today I'm calm.  I'm hoping that by writing it all down I will remember it for a longer period of time. 

The flip side of Alexa's stubbornness is her determination.  She has been practicing kicking the ball all summer, and she is getting so much better, she can now run up to the ball and kick it without stopping, and even has some accuracy.  She's also been practicing dancing, and has been having an outbreak of what we call SAS, sudden arabesque syndrome, she kicked several people in the shins at Da Vinci Days by doing this while waiting in line.  The thing is, she has been practicing her arabesque for a few years now, something that's very challenging for her because of the balance and strength and muscle control it requires.  I'm very proud of her for it.  Many kids would have given up on it long ago, but not Alexa, so I try to remember, the same thing that can turn getting dressed into a three hour battle is what allows her to dance.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Our first parade

Alexa and I participated in the local "anyone can join" parade today.  There was no way I was going to be able to stand around while waiting for the parade to begin, and then walk in it too, so I decided to bring my scooter.  We needed to test the battery before taking it to Disneyland next week anyway since it's been sitting in the storage unit for a few years now. 
We had so much fun.  This is one of the days that I love living in a small town.  Within minutes of arrival, we saw someone we knew.   After talking with them for a few minutes, Alexa saw a little digger that was pulling a trailer in the parade, so we went over to investigate.  After I mentioned that Alexa loved diggers, the owner turned it off and helped her to sit in the seat.  After about 3 seconds she got down to go investigate the digger bucket part (I don't know the correct name for this kind, it was the kind that's as wide as the whole vehicle, and flat on the bottom, maybe it's a loader?)  anyway, she was signing digger, digger and jumping up and down gleefully.  Even when she's not using the talker she communicates very effectively. 
By the time the parade started, we had seen at least 15 people we knew.  We were loaned some shiny bead necklaces for Alexa, because we hadn't planned ahead for this and finally we started walking.  It was quite the exercise in working together, there were a bunch of kids on bikes and scooters, and it was very challenging not to run into anyone with the scooter while trying to see where I was going through Alexa's head.  What was really fun was seeing all the people who turned out to watch this motley collection of people walk through the streets of town.  I felt very much a part of a community, and I felt lucky that this is one of the ways in which Alexa is exceptional.  She loves people, and they love her.  I know that it's possible we will have to leave Corvallis someday when David gets a job somewhere else, and I hope that I remember how important it is to get out there and participate in the community that we live in, even when it seems like work. 
This experience of belonging in our community made me think about when I heard David Pitonyak speak at PIP in April.  You can read about him here.  The theme of his talk at PIP was that people are hardwired to belong, literally.  The human brain experiences and responds to rejection in exactly the same way it responds to a punch in the face.  This talk further crystallized my already growing realization that what Alexa needs to learn in school is not how to be completely independent, but how to give and receive help from others.  None of us is independent in this life.  We all buy food that we didn't grow ourselves, we visit doctors and lawyers, we count on family and friends for emotional support.  I'm not suggesting that we discard academic pursuits, but that it be balanced against the equally important need to belong.
My greatest fear regarding Alexa's future is that she won't have friends and family to support her when David and I are gone.  It may be that Alexa will need more adaptations to allow her to live a full life than that hypothetical "typical" person, but all of that is easy to provide, what isn't easy to teach in a segregated classroom, is how to be a friend.  This is not because I devalue the friendships I enjoy with those who have IDD, but because 99% of the world does not have IDD, and it's very hard to learn how to behave like a 3rd grader when you don't spend time around a bunch of other third graders.  Alexa has always been surrounded by adults who will do the work of conversation for her, so she gravitates toward them, only in the past year has she begun to learn how to ask questions and comment on things with her same age peers.  Alexa has spent 3 years in a segregated classroom, but none of her classmates from that class came to her birthday party, whereas about 10 classmates from second grade were there.   We have been fortunate enough to make a real friend or two (ones not forced by parents) from the grade level classrooms.  One of them told me today that she loves Alexa's uniqueness.   This kind of friendship wouldn't have been possible had Alexa not spent part of her schooldays in the general ed classrooms.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Welcome to Bananas Foster

I decided it was time to put on the big girl pants and start a new blog.  The Boobear Times was fun and is still active if you want to see where we've been, but Alexa is 8 years old as of June 9, 2012, so it's time for something new!
I graduated from Partners in Policymaking yesterday, and if you've been around me for the past 6 months, you'll know what that is.  It's been transformative, and inspiring, and I'll tell you about things I learned and experienced in future posts.  It's a program offered in various places nationwide, and every 2 years in Oregon, so 2014 is your next chance if you are an advocate for a person experiencing disability.
As you may have noticed I've developed a new way of talking.  It's called People First Language, and I'll refer you to Kathie Snow's  website for the details.   I care a lot about language.  This doesn't mean I never make a grammatical error, but I strongly believe that the words we use both shape and reflect the way we think.  I don't believe any of us would like to be referred to solely by our medical conditions, yet it is common to refer to people who have disabilities as a disabled person, special needs child, Life Skills kid, or autistic person.  I have a disability, yet I am not referred to (at least not to my face) as a disabled woman.  I prefer to refer to my daughter as a person with Worster-Drought-Syndrome or a person who experiences cerebral palsy.  Mostly I prefer to refer to her by name unless her disability is crucial to the discussion at hand.  I know that we live in the Twitter and Facebook generation when most people prefer to use as few words as possible, but I still believe that it is appropriate to refer to people, whose personal preferences you aren't familiar with, by the most respectful terms possible.  After you know them better, you can refer to them by whatever terms they use themselves, but until that time, be respectful.  Respect is a big thing at Alexa's school, can you tell?
My goal here is not to make anyone feel bad, after all, until six months ago, I used those words myself.  The term I used then, "special needs child," now makes me cringe.  I know many have you have rejected that term for the same reason I do now, my daughter's needs are not special.  She needs, like all of us, to belong, to communicate, to learn, to love, to be loved, to be needed and depended upon.   The fact that different support sytems are used to allow her to communicate does not make the need to communicate "special."  Do you say you have special needs if you use glasses to read? 
Oops, there I go again, off on a tangent. 
I'm going to stop now and post this before I chicken out!