Thursday, September 27, 2012

A Boy Like Lightning

I think I will call him Lightning. You see, this child, this magic little person is fast and sudden in his ability to be here then gone around the corner, smiling a big toothy and toothless grin to make sure a preferred adult is in hot pursuit of him. Lightning is five now. The youngest of three boys, all of whom have an Autism Spectrum Diagnosis. Lightning runs to gain attention, to feel the specialness of being chased, and the safety of being caught.

 Slow to talk, (but he IS talking now!), Lightning relies on this elopement to communicate what he needs. Slowly, slowly he is gaining new skills to have the kind of interactions and support that he is craving. When he was four, I learned that he realistically, was actually a toddler. A consistent, nurturing, highly responsive method of teaching was required to meet his particular needs. It's important for me as his teacher for the second year, to remember that even though he is five, he requires a different kind of support than his same age peers. My expectations need to shift in order to create the best educational environment for Lightning.

For instance, today he built with blocks. He started his work time at the easel  where he painted by tapping so hard and fast with a paint brush in each hand, specks of blue paint dotted his face. When he finished painting Lightning walked past a very tall, block tower that his peers had just finished creating. He stopped, stared at it, walked around it, and faster than fast kicked it over with both feet until all the blocks lay scattered on the ground. I spoke to him about cleaning up, he complied and sat down with me to pick up blocks together. After putting several blocks away Lightning began to build with the remaining blocks on the floor. Completing a small tower, he grinned at me and began to scoot back giving me the "I want you to catch me look." I responded, "I am going to catch you and bring you back." Laughing he allowed me to bring him back, then grinning at me again quickly kicked his tower over laughing hysterically.

 I pressed pause in my mind... My expectation for Lightning's peers is that they will not intentionally knock blocks down when building, which is an age appropriate expectation for four and five year olds, but not for a toddler. I smiled, and started to play his game with him. Lightning built and kicked, built and kicked gleefully with my assistance for several minutes. He was completely engaged, productive and learning what all toddlers need to learn, cause and effect. I am powerful when I cause this noise to happen. And what a sight, blocks of all shapes and sizes scattered around ones feet moments after carefully erecting a tower.

 It is not possible to build a tower without first laying a foundation, and the same is true in education. No matter the age, or the preferred outcomes we must start as educators where a person is. We cannot skip developmental steps in order to meet academic goals that may be age appropriate, but not developmentally. Provide the safe base first, build second, and relax when something carefully constructed comes crashing down. The beauty of block building and teaching, is that we can always build, we can always try again tomorrow. And tomorrow, the tower may be taller, the crash louder, and one day? Lighting will build with blocks for the pleasure and cognitive challenge of construction, confident in his abilities to affect the world with his mind, and his hands.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

An Unexpected Art Class: The Gift of Reverse Mainstreaming

When school began several weeks ago three third grade girls ran into my classroom during their recess in search of the teacher whose classroom this used to be. "Can we help? Do you need help?" They chorused loudly, enthusiastically. I told them I didn't need help with chores, but I did need help teaching my preschool children how to play, could they help with this? They can, they do. A gaggle of five girls has become anywhere between ten and thirty third graders knocking on the door "Can we play? "Can we use the clay?", "Can we paint?" And my favorite request, "is the art class open?"

 My attempts at providing developmentally appropriate, open ended sensory, art and literacy experiences for my preschool children with Autism, has expanded to serve a need I wasn't anticipating, a creative experience for grade school children. They rush into the room, lining up at the easels to paint, to create structures out of duct tape and card board. "It's a kite", "I made a filter for my fish tank", "I made head phones because it's so loud." Art has become the focus, the foundation on which this classroom community is being built. "Can this be our art class everyday?" "Can I take this painting home to my mom?" "Can you get us more ribbon and cardboard boxes?" "See, I told you it was fun in this room", one girl remarked to her friend.

 The social aspects of this reverse mainstreaming surprise and encourage me. If Alice, my oldest and perhaps most rigid student can practice her cutting skills with scissors and construction paper while sharing space and materials with an unpredictable, loud group of older children? Fantastic. Frequent "gift giving" and letter writing, small connections are being made. "It's okay if she doesn't smile when you give her the letter, the important thing is that you wrote it", I tell the children who are thinking hard about ways to interact with my students.

 Vernon, age four asked an older boy to read aloud to him, and gave him a high five when the book was complete. Sally ran to the door and grabbed the hand of the girl who played playdough with her the day before. Frances who does not speak, ran into the center of the older kids who were jumping on the trampoline laughed, flapped his arms, and joined them. When Frances observed the older boys pretending to be Doctors? He sat down next to them, put on a stethoscope and imitated their play. 

Occasionally in stressful moments the need to contain, or limit the "art class" recess time for the third grade comes to mind, but the thought is fleeting as I consider the value of free, creative, expressive play for eight- year olds. Having their own self made art class, and the opportunity to learn about other kinds of people is filling a hole in their academic curriculum, well balanced day. What these third graders are bringing to my students is of irreplaceable value: their ability to connect, interact and yes teach, my Autistic students how to play. It really is fun in this room. Pass the duct tape.