Do You Want to Be My Friend?

IMG_9340As Caleb walked into the waiting room at the dentist office this afternoon he didn’t waste anytime. He walked right up to an older woman, looked her straight in the eyes and stuck out his hand for a handshake.

“Hi!” Caleb said.

The woman looked up at him and said, “Hello. Do I know you?”

Caleb moved on to the next person, a middle-aged man.

“Hi!” Caleb said

The man looked up and then kept reading his magazine.

“Hi!” Caleb said again, getting closer to the man and trying to get him to look up and return the greeting. He bent down, trying to see the man’s eyes – Caleb is fascinated with eyes!

“I’m sorry.” I apologized to the man, “He’s just really friendly.”

Caleb continued to work the waiting room and most of the people were very friendly. Those who weren’t, eventually realized that Caleb wasn’t going to stop saying “Hi” until they responded with a handshake or at least a greeting of “Hi” or “Hello”.

Eventually, Caleb settled down into a seat but as soon as anyone new entered into the dentist office he would jump out of his seat and bounce over to greet them. Those of you who know Caleb know what I mean by bounce … he “bounces” when he gets really excited. Caleb had a great time while waiting for his siblings to get done with their appointment.

As I watched Caleb, and sometimes had to intervene when he got a little too friendly, I thought about how much he has changed in the past few years. When Caleb was first diagnosed with autism around age three, he was very withdrawn and didn’t want to interact with other people. He had to be prompted to greet others and often even rewarded with a reinforcer, such as goldfish crackers, in order to be motivated enough to participate.

I first noticed a change about three or four years ago when Caleb became interested in eyes. This is interesting for a child with autism since making eye contact is something they usually are uncomfortable doing. Caleb wanted to look at people’s eyes, study them, and watch them move. Then about a year ago Caleb started participating in our “meet & greet” time at church. He would walk around with me and shake hands. More recently he has become even more interested in this social time at church and he will now even venture out on his own initiating the greeting with church members by looking at their eyes, shaking hands and loudly saying “Hi!”.

The more I thought about this, the more I regretted apologizing for his behavior and intervening to interrupt his overzealous greetings. I don’t want to ever discourage Caleb for these interactions, even though they may be uncomfortable for others. I know that Caleb has stepped way out of his comfort zone to overcome his social anxieties and learn to greet and interact with those around him. Making eye contact, shaking hands and verbally greeting others (especially new, unfamiliar people) is an answer to many years of prayers. I imagine that God is looking down and smiling every time he sees Caleb bouncing up to shake hands and greet a new friend!

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Sweet Treats

Caleb doesn’t really like to eat sweets. He will eat an occasional sugar cookie, but he doesn’t like candy, cakes, ice cream, etc. One night last week I made a pan of brownies, per Emma’s request, and we were all getting ready to enjoy some brownies with ice cream on top.

As I was dishing out the brownies and scooping ice cream Caleb came into the kitchen. He looked at what I was doing and watched me intently. He seemed very interested.

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“Do you want a brownie Caleb?” I asked him.

“Yes!” he answered.

“You do? Are you sure?” I asked.

Again, he answered, “Yes!”

“OK, I said. Do you want ice cream on top?”

He looked at the ice cream, nodded his head and said, “Ice Cream. Yes.”

“Really? Are you sure you want ice cream?” I asked, surprised at his adventurous spirit.

“YES!” he said, much louder and with a little frustration in his voice. I figured he was getting annoyed with me for asking the same questions again and again.

I scooped Caleb a small scoop of ice cream, put it on top of a brownie and gave it to him in a bowl. He carefully carried the bowl to the table where the rest of the family was sitting and eating. He watched us all eating our brownies and ice cream and just looked at his.

“Are you going to eat it?” I asked him.

“Noooo!” he said firmly.

“You’re not?” I asked. “But you said you wanted ice cream and brownies. Why don’t you try a bite?”

He took a small bite of ice cream and made a face telling me he was not impressed.

“Take another bite with some brownie too.” I encouraged him and helped him get a little spoonful of both brownie and ice cream.

He opened his mouth and took the bite. As he slowly swallowed he looked around the table at the rest of us like we were all crazy.

He made a face, pushed the bowl away and said “All done.”

“OK” I said, “Thanks for giving it a try!”

He got up from the table and went and got an apple and ran upstairs to eat it.IMG_7677

It amazes me that Caleb is willing to try things he knows he doesn’t like because he sees us eating them and wants to join in with the family. He is more and more aware of the world around him and what others are doing which is huge for a child with autism! Also proud that he chose an apple over a brownie and ice cream … I should do that more often!

Singing Surprise

Singing

Sunday at church Emma and Ethan, along with their cousins, performed the special music for the congregation.  They sang, “How Great is Our God” and did a beautiful job. They blessed everyone with their praises to God but the biggest blessing was an unexpected vocalist that decided to join in. Caleb was sitting next to me and I noticed he was intently watching the other kids sing and attempting to sing along with them!

This is not the first time that we have noticed music helping Caleb find his voice.  A few months ago he discovered the twins karaoke machine and we were amazed at how well he did trying to sing every word as he watched the lyrics on the screen. Here he is singing along to “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” on the karaoke machine. It’s one of his favorite songs!

What a blessing!  I know God has a plan for Caleb’s life and I am starting to think that this plan may include singing or music.

The Case of The Flying Cupcake

Emma came running through door afterschool shouting, “Mom! Mom! Caleb had a bad day! He was throwing cupcakes in class!”  Emma is the one who always likes to “report” (ie: tattle) on the happenings of the school day that Mom and Dad NEED to know.  In Kindergarten Emma and Ethan were in the same class and her tattling got so bad that Ethan insisted on being in a different class than Emma for First Grade so that she wouldn’t keep getting him into trouble.

I looked at Emma and said, “What do you mean he was throwing cupcakes in class? Who told you this?” Emma proudly replied, “I found out on the bus from a kid in Caleb’s class.”  This didn’t surprise me because Caleb is a master at making messes, but I was curious to how it all came about. Since Caleb is very limited in his speech due to his Autism I was not sure how to find out what happened.

Shortly thereafter, I received an email from Caleb’s teacher with the story of the flying cupcake and fortunately, it does have a happy ending.  You see, one of the boys in Caleb’s class brought in cupcakes to share because it was his birthday.  Caleb was offered a cupcake, but he declined as he usually does.  The boy who sits across from Caleb picked out a cupcake with bright green frosting and Caleb became very excited and started pointed and making his “chirping” noise that he makes when he is happy. The birthday boy went back over to Caleb and asked him again if he would like a cupcake and Caleb answered “SSSS” (which means “yes”). He picked out one with bright green frosting like his friend had but he was nervous about touching the cupcake, so his classmate got it out for him and sat it down on Caleb’s desk.

Caleb was elated and kept looking back and forth from the cupcake on his desk to the matching cupcake on his friend’s desk and he was smiling from ear to ear.  He enjoyed it when the class sang Happy Birthday to the birthday boy and after they were through his teacher said it was cute to watch Caleb trying to figure out what to do with the cupcake. Caleb is not big on sweets and wasn’t sure what to make of the bright green frosting.  Since Caleb is mainstreamed into a General Ed Fourth Grade class, he has an aide with him at all times and so she helped Caleb by taking off the cupcake wrapper and placing the cupcake in Caleb’s hand.  Caleb was fascinated by the cupcake and studied it carefully.  Caleb’s teacher and aide and all the students in the class watched excitedly as they waited for Caleb to take his first bite.

However, when Caleb went to bring the cupcake to his mouth he panicked, screamed and chucked the cupcake sending it flying through the air.  The cupcake bounced off of the shirt of Caleb’s friend who sat across from him and landed on another classmate’s chair. 

Although Caleb had to apologize for throwing the cupcake, his teacher, aide and parents were thrilled by this chain of events. You see, when a child has Autism one of the biggest obstacles they must overcome is their lack of social skills. In Caleb’s case, he has an ever greater challenge because of his limited speech, but there are so many other social aspects involved.  Children with Autism are often described as being “in their own little world” and they don’t care or even recognize what the people around them are doing. They don’t have a desire to be around other people or interact with them and they lack imitation skills.  

Caleb’s social skills have increased so much over the last few years and he not only can tolerate being with other children, but he actually will seek out ways to fit in and be part of a group. His desire to have a cupcake with green frosting, just like his friend, and his willingness to venture out of his comfort zone and attempt to eat it was a HUGE accomplishment for Caleb. We are so excited that he is making such great progress and are thankful for all the ways Caleb’s teacher and classmates encourage Caleb and celebrate his progress …. even when it involves flying cupcakes!

You’ve Got a Friend in Me

Caleb’s school year is coming to an end and as we look back and reflect on this past year we are amazed at how well things turned out. I think back to last August when the school year was just starting and I remember our concerns over whether we were making the right decision or not. This was the first year that Caleb was mainstreamed into a general ed 3rd grade classroom.

This is scary for the parents of a child with Autism because you worry that other kids may tease your child or that your child will be so disruptive that the teachers, other students or parents will complain. Dwight and I were not sure how Caleb would adjust to being in a classroom and wondered if he would be happy and accept the new setting.

Change is always hard for a child with Autism and there were lots of changes for Caleb to adjust to. There would be a much larger class with more students and more noise and distractions. There would be a more rigid schedule with more academic demands and more rules to follow.

Dwight and I felt that it was very important to be open and honest with the Caleb’s classmates. We wanted to share with them what Autism was (and what it wasn’t) and also suggest ways they could include Caleb and communicate with him.

We visited the classroom the first week of school and gave a short talk to the class explaining that Caleb was like them in many ways : He likes pizza, swimming and Spongebob SquarePants.

Next we pointed out that there are some things that were “different” about Caleb:  He may flap his hands or make other gestures when he is excited. He cannot talk so communication is often difficult … these difficulties may cause Caleb to get frustrated and mad and he may cry or show other signs that he is upset.

We taught them some simple sign language that they might be able to use to talk to Caleb and gave them some games and activities he enjoys and ways they can play with him and interact with him. We told them that the reason we wanted to have Caleb in their class was not just for academic reasons, but also because Caleb needed to learn how to play and make friends. They all seemed eager to help Caleb and Dwight and I hoped that they would continue to have that enthusiasm throughout the year.

A couple months into the school year I went on a field trip with the class and I was amazed at how well Caleb was accepted. The students were all so helpful and kind to him and they would even give him high-fives and fist bumps. It was so neat to see how Caleb’s classmates interacted with him. He had made one special friend, Colin Lee, who really helped Caleb and told me that Caleb was his “best buddy”.

I think the students have gained a lot from Caleb being in their class too. One of the girls told me that she wants to be an aide or therapist and work with kids with Autism when she grows up. Most of these kids had never heard of Autism before Caleb came into their class. They were even a little scared of Caleb at first. But now they don’t even notice the differences in Caleb because they have become used to him and they accept him the way he is.

Caleb’s teacher, aides and support staff are wonderful and have really helped accommodate Caleb so he can be in the classroom with his peers. His teacher, Mr. Henry, has been amazing with Caleb. His flexibility and patience has helped Caleb feel welcome in the class and he has now started to look to Mr. Henry for instruction which is huge!

A few weeks ago the class started writing a play about their school year. One of the things they all agreed upon was how much Caleb had been an important part of their year and how much their perception and interaction with him had changed since the year started. When Dwight and I, along with Caleb’s grandmothers, went and saw them perform the play they had written we were overwhelmed with joy as we watched the kids talk about Caleb and how much they enjoyed having him in their class. When they concluded by singing the song from Toy Story “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” we all had tears in our eyes as we realized how blessed we were.

Here is a video clip of that portion of the play along with the song. I hope you enjoy it as much as we did!

Birthday Wishes

We always have a hard time knowing what to buy for Caleb for Christmas and his birthday since he can’t verbally tell us what he wants.  With Drew, Emma, and Ethan it’s a constant stream of “Oh, mom … come see this commercial! I really want THAT for my birthday!” or the excited chatter from the toy aisle at Wal-mart,  “Mom, mom! You gotta come see this cool new toy! Oh, and this one too …”  Many times Caleb will open a present, take one look at the toy and then toss it aside and go onto the next one.  We can’t tell if he doesn’t like the toy or if he was expecting or wishing for a certain toy so he keeps unwrapping hoping that the next gift he unwraps will be that toy he has dreamt of.

Although Caleb can’t verbally give us ideas for his birthday or Christmas list we have known that there had to be toys on TV or in the stores that he wanted.  We knew that he probably had a mental wish list of toys, DVD’s etc. that he wanted to ask for but didn’t know how.  The challenge to Dwight and I as parents has been trying to find a way to access this mental wish list and provide ways for Caleb to tell us what toys he would like to have.

Caleb has always liked computers and recently has been fascinated with watching clips of Mickey Mouse, Rolie Polie Olie and Spongebob on the internet. He found YouTube with the help of his older brother, Drew, and he was in heaven.  He then started using the Google search and looking up his favorite characters to watch videos, see photos of the DVD jackets and his favorite thing … reading the credits (he loves to read the credits and see who the producer, editor, director, etc. for that particular episode is).

One day when I logged onto Amazon I was looking at the “recently viewed” items on my account and noticed all these DVD’s of Winnie the Pooh, Mickey Mouse, and Spongebob. I realized that since Caleb had been using my computer to “surf the net” he was logged in under my account in Amazon.   I went to YouTube and saw similar video clips.  All of the sudden it hit me that I could tell what videos and movies that Caleb liked best and use this information to find presents that he would like.

I also noticed that he really enjoyed watching this clip of an animated Mr. Potato Head and he even showed it to me one time and kept rewinding and watching it over and over and laughing hysterically. I had to admit this Mr. Potato Head was pretty cool and since he seemed to like watching the video I thought he might like it for his upcoming birthday so I went ahead and ordered it along with a few of the videos he had recently viewed on Amazon.

When Caleb opened the DVD’s of Winnie the Pooh, Mickey Mouse and Spongebob he was excited and started to run off with them to put them in his DVD player. “Wait, Caleb … you still have another present to open” we said as we handed him the wrapped Mr. Potato Head. He took the gift and slowly tore one strip of the wrapping paper. He saw the writing on the box and realized what was inside and his face lit up. He quickly tore the rest of the wrapping paper off and looked up at Dwight and I was a huge grin on his face and his blue eyes were dancing with excitement.  Caleb’s birthday wish had come true and he had gotten the gift he had dreamed of.   “Happy Birthday Caleb !” we all said as we helped him take Mr. Potato Head out of box.

Here is a video clip of Caleb playing with his new toy :

Different, Not Less

 

“What’s wrong with your brother? Why can’t he talk?”

Ethan looked up at the little girl at the park who asked him this question and said, “There’s nothing wrong with Caleb. He CAN talk, but just not the way you and I do.  He’s different, but he’s a lot of fun and I love him just the way he is.”

When I heard the little girls question I cringed and my motherly instincts almost caused me to jump in and answer for Ethan since I thought that it might be a hard thing for an eight-year-old to explain.  I was so glad that I held back because Ethan’s answer brought tears to my eyes.  I was so proud of him for sticking up for his big brother and for helping to explain to his new friend that although Caleb is different that does not mean that there is something wrong with him. 

I led a small group last Spring for mothers of special needs children and one night we watched the HBO film “Temple Grandin” based on the true story of Temple Grandin’s life.  Temple is now an adult, but the movie covers the struggles she had growing up with Autism and how her mother fought long and hard to make sure she got the education she deserved.  I love the quote from Temple’s mother when she tells a teacher that although her daughter had Autism she didn’t want her treated as if she were stupid.  “She is different, but not less” Temple’s mother explained to the teacher.

Dwight and I have learned over the years that instead of trying to “fix” Caleb and make him conform to the world’s definition of “normal”, we need to embrace his unique personality and special gifts and meet him in his world.  We have found that by focusing on what Caleb CAN do instead of what he can’t do helps us see him as the special and amazing child that God has made him to be.

The best way we can help others to accept children with Autism is to increase awareness of what Autism is (and what it isn’t).   Each year Dwight and I go into the school and talk to Caleb’s classmates in the Fall and educate them on Autism. We talk about how Caleb is like them in many ways : He watches Spongebob Squarepants, he loves to go swimming, and  his favorite food is pizza.  Next we talk about the ways that Caleb is different and explain his sensory issues and why he sometimes gets overwhelmed when there are a lot of sounds and distractions.  We also tell them that Caleb can sometimes become frustrated when he can’t communicate and ask them how they would feel if they couldn’t tell someone when they needed a snack or wanted to watch their favorite TV show.  We explain that this frustration may cause him to cry or have other behaviors that they may not be used to.   We also teach the students ways that they can include Caleb so he feels accepted and alternative ways they can communicate with him. 

The more children (and adults) learn about Autism the more they will come to accept the differences of those with Autism and realize that they are pretty “cool kids” to hang out with.  Caleb has made some great friends at school this year and all his classmates have been so accepting.  They will give him a high-five or fist bump and even run up and say “Hi” to him when they see him at Wal-Mart, McDonald’s or the movie theatre.   Caleb’s teacher and his aides have gone above and beyond to make sure Caleb has the same opportunities to learn as any other student.

Today is World Autism Awareness Day … A day set aside for the people to learn more about Autism and what they can do to help individuals on the Autism spectrum and their families.  Take time to learn that children with Autism are not retarded or stupid. They are beautiful and smart and have so much potential!   There is no limit to the obstacles these special kids can overcome when they have teachers, peers and family members who support them , believe in them and love them just the way they are.

You can learn more about Autism and Autism Awareness Day at www.autismspeaks.org