Thursday, December 25, 2014

"...all is calm, all is bright."

Merry and joyous Christmas to all!

We sat side-by-side at a small table in a corner of her special education classroom.  It was Monday morning and neither of us was quite awake and ready for the long week ahead.

As usual, we started by drawing simple shapes, to improve her hand control, and she copied my example in a step-by-step fashion.  One of her drawings started out looking like a house, turned into a little church, and that's when it all began.

"Had to go to church with my mom yesterday," she grumbled,  "thought we'd never get back home."

"I went to church, too,"  I replied, "I get to see all my friends at church."

She widened her eyes and stared at me like I had just dropped into her classroom from somewhere far away.  Silent, pondering this for a moment, she then asked, "You go to a white church?"

Oh, I've gone and done it now, I thought.  It's only Monday and I'm already deep into  treacherous waters at work because I'm sitting here discussing faith and race--with a student.

But, her question was yet unanswered so I said, "Well, it's mostly people who look like me but there are lots of people who don't."  Since she was young, a first grader, I didn't elaborate on the names of the countries my friends first called home--Burundi, Cuba, South Sudan, Honduras, Serbia, Nepal. She left the subject and returned to her drawing, probably needing time to sort through this new thought, that this boring, vanilla lady who worked with her every Monday spent Sunday mornings--and Christmas Eve--with people who didn't look exactly like her.

When I went to work for Richmond Public Schools in the late 1970's I was thankful to experience the ease in which teachers who didn't always look like me incorporated their faith into the classrooms.  One lunchtime I positioned a spoon in my student's hand prior to working with him on self-feeding.  His teacher, Ms. Ford, told me in a clear, directive voice, "Our class waits to pray before lunch." Yes Ma'm.  She thoroughly knew all her students, their families and their faith backgrounds; prayer before meals was non-debatable.

At the Friends Association in Creighton Court I often joined a special education class of preschoolers during their morning circle time.  One September day I lifted my student from her wheelchair and seated her in the circle of my legs on the carpet, so she could be closer to her friends and to help her clap along to the songs we'd soon sing.  Her teacher, Ms. Barry, whispered to me, "If you'd like to join us, we pray for the Lord to help us with our day."  My hands were busy supporting my student so, with every eye closed, I settled for wiping my tears away on both sleeves.

Josiah and I had a weekly appointment on the therapy mat at Amelia Street School.  His grandma knew that he would probably never talk or pick up his own cup, but she wanted his body to stay as straight as possible and not be bound up more and more by the spasticity that constrained his movement.  We practiced simple skills--using his "better" arm to touch a switch for music to begin, lifting his head against gravity to see the pictures in a propped book.

One chilly day I talked to him about a whole bunch of things as we worked together.  Other students and staff walked in and out of our room, yet we had many moments when there was just the two of us.  Chatting away I said, "Hey Josiah, do you know what holiday is coming up next?"  He nodded.  I asked, "Is it Thanksgiving?"  He shook his head, "No."

"Is it St. Patrick's Day?" I teased.  Another "No."  "Is it...Christmas?" I queried.

Josiah's face became animated and he vigorously shook his head up and down--"Yes!"

I laughed and said, "You're right, Christmas is coming."  Then I realized, I can ask him this question because his grandma had spoken in Josiah's yearly meetings about her faith and trust in God, so I asked, "Josiah, do you know Jesus?"

 He quieted his body for a second, quite a feat for his nervous system, then widened his eyes and lifted his eyebrows while nodding his head faster than I'd ever seen him move in all the years I'd known him, declaring, "Yes!"

I quietly said to him, " So do I."  And then we started to sing.

Folks hurrying down the long school hallway probably thought the faint notes coming from our room were just from a therapist using music to motivate a student to work hard.  But in that room, in a public school in Richmond, Virginia, one voice and two hearts were practicing for their parts in the heavenly choir, agreeing that, "...all is calm, all is bright."
2002 Photo by F.N.S.





Friday, December 19, 2014

Multiple Benefits of Recycling

Since I drive my recycling to the recycling center, it tends to accumulate quite a bit between visits...

This ridiculous amount of stuff is hugely embarrassing to me, since I often help friends de-clutter their homes. decluttering blog My family knows that it's easier for me to "preach" tidiness than it is to live it out in daily life.

There would have been even more to stuff into my car this morning if I hadn't been taking my juice and detergent bottles to one of my high schools for a special project.  I've been trying to provide opportunities for students to practice pre-vocational tasks that will help them with grasp strength, work hardening, sequencing and organization.  Today was the day to prepare the saved-up bottles for use next year.

Fill clean bottles with water, then add a few tablespoons of  white vinegar.  Using a little white vinegar might keep the water fresh for a few weeks or longer.  Leave a few inches of airspace at the top.

Apply a ring of hot glue around the inside of the cap, where the threads of the bottle will connect with the cap.  This will slow down a student opening the bottle but don't count on it preventing spills.

Some students will carry just one or two bottles at a time, from a table or from the floor, then stock them on a shelf or counter.  Other students will be able to carry a crate of bottles for stocking.

I asked the teachers to vary the heights at which the bottles are kept and stocked--perhaps picking them up from the floor and placing individual bottles on waist-high or chest-high shelves.  I hope it will provide an opportunity for students to tilt their heads in different planes, to provide the same vestibular challenges they will encounter on some jobs or in everyday life.  We all know some students who like to keep their head position very static and this can interfere with different tasks.
The teachers understand that some students don't use good body mechanics, and they should make sure that the students are not carrying so much weight that they might injure themselves.

Our two-week break starts in about 3.5 hours--I'll be having a wonderful Christmas and I hope you do, too!  Talk to you next year.

Dr. Galloway at University of Delaware--Go Baby Go Mobility

This video highlights some wonderful mobility adaptations for kids:

Thursday, December 18, 2014


One of my teachers for students with autism let me know about this condition, since she has been helping one of her students cope with the symptoms described in this article:

Conservative me went to to search for the term, but there were no results.  The article listed above is interesting.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

New Assessment for Organizational Skills--Pretzel Drizzling

No, not really.  I thought our group would be practicing easy cooking skills, sequencing, fine motor control and turn taking.  However, it turned out to be an activity that perfectly reflected the students' styles of self organization and I'm thinking somebody should create a standardized assessment for organization, using chocolate, pretzels, wax paper, measuring spoons and cute sprinkles.  We'd just have to be sure the assessment kit comes with regular and gluten-free pretzels.

Our task--melting bars of chocolate in the microwave and drizzling thin lines of the melted chocolate over different pretzel shapes, as well as small candy canes.  I made sure we had some very tiny spoons, to make the task more challenging and extend the repetitions of scooping chocolate out of the Pyrex measuring cup.  Toward the end of the session we even dipped some candy canes in the melted chocolate.  Our speech-language pathologist facilitated turn taking and polite requests.

What do you see about organizational styles in these photos?  In our group for students with high-functioning autism we have carefree types, average Joes, very-concerned-with-rules guys and one student with diagnosed motor incoordination.  Can you match the pretzel creations to these characteristics?

If you guessed "organized" for this student, you're right!

We do have one student who can touch, but not eat, regular pretzels and he gave his creations to a fellow group member.  At the beginning of the school year we sent a questionnaire to parents of students in our group, asking about allergies/sensitivities to food, spices, etc., and were glad to see that most students were allergy free.  Many of our students are glad to work with the ingredients but decline to eat them.  There is always another student, or staff member, to step in and help.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Rice, Duct Tape, Baggies--That's All You Need to Make a Weighted Lap Pad

Uncooked rice, quart-size ziplock bags, heavy-duty duct tape (and scissors).  That's all we need to make our own weighted lap pads.

These pads are intended for laps, not for use as blankets.  There may be latex in duct tape--ask the manufacturer for specifications if your student should not touch latex items.

Fill each bag with about 1.5 cups of dry rice.  Squeeze out the air and seal tight.

Turn over the sealed top of the bag once or twice, then place in a row--spaced about 1" between bags--on top of the sticky side of a piece of duct tape.

Cover the bag tops with another length of duct tape.  Try to keep the bags level; I'll tell you why later on.

Follow the same steps as above with another set of three rice bags.

It's time to wrap up both sets.  You can do this whatever way makes sense to you.  You don't want them to shift around after it's completed, although the rice may move around within the bags and that's fine.  Try to keep the grid symmetrical, I'll tell you why later.

One side is finished; now it's time to duct tape the back.

When you press down the duct tape across the width of the bags, be sure to go "down into the valleys" between the bags.  I'll tell you why later.

One side usually looks better than the other.  Choose the messy side to add some non-slip material.

This is shelf liner non-slip webbing.  It's optional.  Save your Dycem for more important non-slip needs.

Ready to go.

Some students have very short laps, or just prefer to fold up the weighted lap pad.  If you've left about an inch of space between the rice bags your lap pad will be easy to fold into thirds, especially if you shimmy the rice around a little while you're folding.  The more symmetrical you've made the grid of bags, the easier it will be to fold.

A grown-up lap with open lap pad.

And, now, with the lap pad folded into thirds.
If your teachers feel that using weighted lap pads helps their students with improving focus in class, try having a "Make It, Take It" session so teachers can learn how to make their own. 

These lap pads slip into pillowcases or old pillow covers and they are fairly waterproof.  Best of all--they're cheap!  About $3 each to make.  Use your best judgement for which students will safely use a weighted lap pad.  The finished weight may vary widely--there are some guidelines for weighted blankets (which this is NOT) but I haven't found definite guidelines for lap pads.  Make sure your student can let you know if they are comfortable using it.  If it's going to work for them, they're going to ask to use it after the first trial or two.

UPDATE 12-18-2014:
My "model" for the two lower photos above was very interested in the "whys" and "wherefors" for making the weighted lap pad.  She told me today that she dug a heavy pillow out of her linen closet and placed it on top of her abdomen to see if it would help her calm down at night and sleep better.  It did!

Wouldn't recommend this for little kids or adults who can't safely squirm away from under the weighted pillow, but it works fine for her. 

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Being Included

This post by Carolyn Hax includes many good strategies for helping students who are not often included on invites to b-day parties and other events.  See what you can take away to help students with special needs and their parents:


Thursday, December 4, 2014

Strategies for Practicing Shoe Tying

Met with a middle school student's mom this morning to discuss customized strategies for shoe tying.  Her daughter is very bright but also highly anxious and sometimes becomes frustrated pretty easily, which has interfered with folks at home and school helping her to learn how to tie her shoes.

We started out by talking about the benefit of approaching the task via backward chaining.

Instead of starting out with the first step:
Students probably know the first few steps by heart.  Since many students don't like to practice shoe tying and may have little patience for it, concentrate on the steps that give them the most difficulty.

Begin with the last step.

With young students I have them close their eyes while I prepare the laces to reach this step, but I don't care if they peek because they're seeing me model the steps--a good thing.  I want them to focus on finding the right place to grab the loops and pull away from the center.  Many students grab the loops and the ends, which results in having to start all over.

I asked the mom to just do the last two or three steps during the home sessions, and to stop after a couple of successful trials.  No overpracticing!  As the student becomes more independent with those last, tricky steps you can add in the middle and beginning steps and practice more of the sequence.  One day the student will become independent; it might take days, weeks or months.

Another way to adapt the activity is to change up what object you're tying on--try things that won't move around too much on the table surface (example:  chose a rectangular box instead of a Quaker oatmeal cylinder.)

When a student who hates shoe tying sees a shoe, they may recall unhappy memories associated with shoe tying.  When they see something non-shoelike being the object to tie up they might think it's silly and participate with a less-apprehensive frame of mind.

If the student appears to be understanding and recalling the steps but is having difficulty with the floppiness of the laces, try different materials:
You might try a small diameter "paracord" rope, or you might try a piece of rope that's about 1/3" in diameter.  Sometimes I'll loop a piece of rope around the student's thigh, near the knee, and have him/her practice tying.  They think it's goofy.  I've even used silicone tubing for practice.

To make it easier to figure out which piece of lace to pick up, cut two different color shoelaces in half and tie them together to create a half 'n half shoelace.  That way, the student will have the different colors to help in seeing the steps of lacing, just like in the book used in the first picture (Red Lace, Yellow Lace by Mike Casey).
If the student is catching on to the steps but has difficulty keeping the loops together, try using tiny stabilizers to keep the loops in their places.  Small rubber bands and doggie hair clips work well but are a little tricky to put in the right places, if you're just a kid.

The mom was very interested in searching on YouTube for shoelacing videos and Ian's Shoe Lacing methods:

As long as the student becomes independent with shoe tying and the shoes stayed tied when they're supposed to, it doesn't matter a bit if they have a little quirky step in the process.  No need to insist on following the "proper steps" once the student is independent.  You should see Uncle Grumpy (dear husband) tie his shoes--eek!

So cool to meet with a parent who is very willing to help a student become more independent at home.

Monday, December 1, 2014

DIY Fidget Mat

If you have lots of $$$ in your therapy department budget, let this post pass you by.

However, if you're interested in experimenting with economical ways for you and other team members to make enticingly-textured fidget mats for students who need to have something quiet to do with their hands while they learn, then read on.

Step One:  Go to a friend's yard sale and buy a whole pack of soft, pre-cut fleecy-material for 25 cents.

Next, pick the color that matches your student's personality and tastes, then find two suitable slide-y things to insert in the future fidget mat:

Fold the fabric in half, like a book:

Sew the outside edges together with a straight stitch:

Once the three edges are sewn, leaving about 2" open on one end for inserting your slide-y thing(s), start sewing your maze:

Insert the slide-y thing(s), sew up the opening and zig-zag the edges you sewed.

The handsewn fidget mat is the blue one on the left.  It works just as well as the one the right, but doesn't look quite so polished.  My adult test subjects loved the feel of both of them. 

*12-3-2014:  Little note--so far I've had two adults softly shriek and almost run away when they tested the fidget mats--they can't stand anything that feels like velvet!  Who knew that was possible?????  I guess I'm just not an empathetic person.  So--never assume, right?

Try making some!  Adjust the material and slide-y things according to the needs of your student, especially their safety if they put things in their mouth.