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 When Caleb was first diagnosed with autism around age three, he was very withdrawn and didn’t want to interact with other people.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

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!”