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 :

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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”