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 When Caleb was first diagnosed with autism around age three, he was very withdrawn and didn’t want to interact with other people.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!

Advertisements

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!

He’s My Brother

“Hurry up! We want to get good seats!”  I said as I led Emma, Ethan and Caleb into the Jr. High Building.  We were coming to watch our oldest son, Drew, play percussion in the Jr. High Band Concert.  We entered the auditorium and filed down the middle row to the first group of open seats we could find. 

I got all the kids settled in and Caleb was happily watching “Bee Movie” on his iPod while Emma and Ethan scanned the crowd looking for kids they knew from school.  “Hey, there’s Grandpa!” Emma said as my Dad walked into the auditorium and came over to join us. 

As the lights dimmed and they introduced the orchestra Caleb threw his iPod into my lap and sat forward intrigued with what was going on up on the stage. He watched and listened as the music began and then started bouncing in his seat and squealing with excitement (making what we like to call his “happy noises”). 

“Wow ! That is unusual for Caleb” I thought.  Every other time we had attended one of Drew’s band performances Caleb would just sit quietly and watch movies on his iPod not even paying attention to what was going on up on stage. Occasionally he would cover his ears if it got too loud or when the audience clapped, but other than that he seemed to be off in his own little world and totally engrossed in the movie he was watching.

Tonight was different and I’m not sure why. Caleb definitely was fascinated by the music of both the orchestra and the band and he could hardly contain his excitement as he bounced on his seat throughout the entire performance.  When each song ended he would clap along with the rest of the audience and he would crane his neck to look for his brother up on the stage. As soon as he saw Drew he would smile and clap even harder.  

What a wonderful evening!  Drew did an awesome job playing the three selections the band played and Caleb surprised us all by helping us congratulate Drew on a job well done.   I even heard Caleb softly say, “Dew” as he clapped at the end of the performance.  This simple word and the smile on his face were Caleb’s way of saying, “Yep, that’s my brother up there and I am so proud of him!”

Caleb’s Voice

Our nine year old son, Caleb, has Autism and is non-verbal.  I have to continually remind others (and even myself) that although he cannot verbally express himself that doesn’t mean he doesn’t understand what we say to him. It also doesn’t mean that there aren’t things that he WANTS to tell us.  I can’t even imagine how hard it is for him to not be able to communicate.  It must be extremely frustrating to not be able to express his wants and needs or even to just make a comment or observation about everyday things we take for granted like what we did that day or what we had for lunch.

When Caleb was around four or five we discovered that he had taught himself to read and spell and he started using magnetic letters to communicate with us.  We had tried to teach him sign language for almost a year but he showed very little interest in learning the signs. However, he has a fascination with letters and words and so he loves to use his magnetic letters to spell words. He sometimes just spells his favorite words like “editor”, “lighting”, “effects”, and “Dreamworks” (hi s favorite part of any movie is the credits, can you tell?).  Other times he spells to tell us what he wants and so he will use his letters to write words like “apple”, “cracker” or “computer”.  His fine motor skills are improving and so now he also uses a pencil and paper to write out words or phrases to communicate.

A couple of years ago we purchased an Augmentative Communication Device (ACD) for Caleb.  An ACD is like a small touch screen computer with keys that have small icons or pictures. There are different menus for things like food, clothing, holidays, school, etc. and each of them has icons of things that are in that category.  Caleb can use the keys to build sentences and then when he is done the device will read the sentence for him in a computer generated voice.  He can also go to the QWERTY keyboard pages and type whatever he wants the device to say.  This has been a great help in providing a mode of communication for Caleb and has really opened our eyes to what is going on inside his head.  We have discovered that Caleb is a very smart boy and he also has a sense of humor. He has found there is a joke page on the ACD and will often tell his therapists jokes to stall for time and avoid work.  The more we see Caleb’s personality the more we realize that he is like most nine year old boys in that he loves to play and tries to find creative ways to avoid work. 

One afternoon my husband, Dwight, was visiting a member of our congregation in the hospital and since bringing four children into the hospital would have created quite a scene I just kept them in the van with me and we drove over to McDonalds and went through the drive-thru to get a snack.  I asked the kids what they wanted.  Drew wanted a coke and fries and Emma and Ethan both decided on chocolate chip cookies and milk. I also ordered french fries and a Sprite for Caleb.  We got our food and drove off to head back over toward the hospital.  Caleb started fussing and whining and continued to let me know that something was not right. I asked him what he wanted and he just continued to kick the seat and whine.  I was driving so I couldn’t tell what was bothering him and I asked the other kids and they couldn’t tell either. I said, “Caleb, get your talker” (that’s what we call his ACD)  “Caleb use your talker to tell me what you want or what’s wrong”.  He got his talker out and then I heard it say, “I want a cheeseburger” and then he added “Please”.  “OK Caleb, we will go back and get you a cheeseburger.” I said with a smile.  After all Dwight had not texted me that he was done with the visitation and so we probably had plenty of time.  I was looking for a place to turn around and head back towards the golden arches and I guess it was taking longer than Caleb thought it should because he grabbed his talker again and I heard, “A hamburger … with cheese”.  I laughed and said, “Yes, Caleb – I know what a cheeseburger is. We are going to get you one as soon as Mommy can get turned around and back to McDonalds.”

Caleb’s ACD has been in “the shop” getting repaired so we have missed it these past two weeks and have had to try and find other ways to help Caleb communicate with us.  He does pretty well with writing so we have used a good old-fashioned pencil and paper and also the magnetic letters so he has some way to let us know what he needs or wants.  This has worked pretty well, but there are times when he decides to find other ways to communicate and they are not always very pleasant for those around him.  He has this piercing scream that he recently has become quite found of.  This scream sound is pretty irritating to listen too especially since my motherly instincts associate screaming with a child being hurt or upset.  However, the more we have charted and tried to figure out the cause of the screaming the more I think that it is not a scream that means something is wrong, but rather an expression of protest  (what the ABA therapists call “avoidance behavior”).  Instead of saying “no” when you ask him if he wants to do something or wants to eat something he lets out this piercing scream (even though he is capable of saying “no” and /or shaking his head).  He will also produce the piercing scream if you try and get him to complete a task whether it be homework, cleaning up his room or some other not-so-fun part of a nine-year-olds day.  Last week he was in his therapy session and he was doing this screaming sound.  His therapist kept asking what was wrong and couldn’t figure it out so she wrote out on a piece of paper, “What’s wrong?”  Caleb took the pencil and wrote back to her, “What’s wrong with you?”.  “What’s wrong with me is your screaming.”   she replied.  Caleb wrote “no screaming” on the paper.  “Yes, no screaming.” She agreed.  Caleb put down the pencil and the screaming stopped.

These examples have helped to show me that Caleb can engage in a conversation if given the proper tools to help him.  He learns a lot from the world around him and we have to find ways for him to express himself in order to grasp just how much he knows.  I am always thankful for the times when God helps Caleb find his voice by allowing him to discover alternative ways to communicate with us.  I especially enjoy the times when his sense of humor shines through and he makes me laugh.  One cold winter day Caleb came up to me and sat on my lap and as I grabbed him to pull him close and hug him I felt his feet and they were freezing. “Caleb!”  I said, “Your feet are so cold … they are like ice cubes. You really need to have socks on!”  Caleb scooted off my lap, took two steps back, looked at my bare feet and then looked back up at me.  He then started giggling and I could tell by the look he gave me exactly what he was thinking … Where are your socks Mom?

A few weeks ago when Caleb was in Sunday School his teacher said he took his paper and pencil and wrote,  “I love you” and handed it to his teacher. She smiled and said, “Thank you Caleb. I love you too.”  She took the pencil and wrote back, “I love you Caleb”  Caleb looked at the paper grabbed the pencil and added “Elliott” after his name.  “Yes” she laughed and added, “I love you Caleb Elliott”