Category Archives: School

Graduation — a milestone

Isabella’s first request for her graduation from the Banyan School was Aunt Joan and Uncle Donald’s attendance. Since her grandparents are no longer with us, Isabella (and the rest of the family) has looked to my father’s brother and his wife as our wise elders. It’s a reminder of the importance of the generational connection. I was lucky enough to have four grandparents until I was 16. My paternal grandfather passed away only seven years before his son, my father. He was a vital force in the lives of all 12 of his grandchildren.

The graduation went off without a hitch. Each graduate was seranaded with words from the director or the principal of the school. What stuck out for me was that Isabella was the only student referred to as queen, as in Queen Isabella. Yay, that’s my girl! She and her sister Victoria both have names that once belonged to queens. So, why not think of yourself as one. I had no idea that Isabella’s school thought of her the way that we, her family, do.

The fashion show

Every year Isabella’s school hosts a feel good fundraiser. It’s the fashion show. Isabella talks about it incessantly. Most of the kids in the school walk down a runway wearing clothing that has been lent to the school for this very purpose. This year, I think, was the first year that Isabella walked, or rather ran, with a classmate, rather than a teacher. She was really excited. I didn’t give it much thought until she jumped on the runway nearly dragging her partner. Clearly in a hurry, Isabella didn’t stop to get her picture taken. And I was worried about the physical condition of her friend, who is not quite as fast. Thanksfully, everything is okay and she has stopped obssessing about the fashion show. Well, at least until next month when she’ll ask,”When is the fashion show.”

Different, Not Less

The spoken motto of the made-for-TV movie and true-life story “Temple Grandin” is different, not less. And Temple certainly proves herself that. She speaks too loudly and too fast; she does not understand body language; she spins around and around for longer than normal; and she experiences tantrums as a teenager — to name a few of the qualities that label her as different. Those of us with children with neurodevelopmental disorders are all too familiar with these and other “non-typical” behaviors. Our children are mocked, shunned, and left out of “normal” childhood life.

Those were not, however, the Temple qualities that I saw. Temple is certainly not less, as her mother believed; she is more. So much more. She excelled in science, going on to college and a very successful career in animal behavior. Temple’s innovations in animal farming, which encourage the humane treatment of cattle, are currently used in more than half the US beef farms. She is a professor at a university, has a consulting business, has written eight books (so far), and lectures about autism. And, perhaps most important to parents of children with neurodevelopment disorders, Temple lives a totally independent life. Temple is clearly a productive member of society, who happens to have autism. How did that happen? After watching the HBO movie and throwing out all my tissues, I searched for presentations about autism by Temple. Here are the keys that  Temple believes contributed to her success while living with, not suffering from, autism.

  • Turn-taking. To encourage sharing and living in the real world, Temple’s mother hired a nanny who played turn-taking games with her and her sister as a young child.
  • Speech therapy. Though a medical doctor said that Temple would never speak, her mother refused to believe that sentence. Like Helen Keller’s Annie Sullivan, Temple praises her wonderful speech teacher.
  • Nutrition. In her book Developing Talents, Temple says that she has noticed that people on the autism spectrum who are successful at work followed special diets, took nutritional supplements or medication, or used other treatments.
  • Manners. Temple was taught table manners. Bad behavior was not allowed at the table. No stimming. No eating with your hands. No talking with your mouth full.
  • Respect. Temple was taught to greet people. No rude comments. She was expected to adhere to the rules of  genteel society.
  • Responsibility. Temple had chores that she had to do every day. This was required because she was part of a household. Everyone in the family pitches in to help one another.
  • Outdoor time. Temple was encouraged to play and explore outside. Temple bemoans the amount of time that today’s youth spend inside watching television or using computers.
  • Self-care. Temple was required to take care of her personal appearance. No dirty clothes, unkempt hair, or unbrushed teeth.
  • Independence. First, Temple’s mother arranged for her daughter to spend two weeks, which turned into a summer, at her aunt’s ranch. Then, though it was difficult for both of them, Temple attended boarding school.
  • Skill building. Temple took classes like shop and home economics in school. Her mother bought her a play sewing machine on which she made costumes for her school play.
  • Job preparation. Temple’s mother arranged for her to work (for money) for a friend who was a seamstress when she was 13.
  • Mentors. Temple learned to sell her skills and ability before she sold herself, garnering mentors at crucial points in her life. Temple’s most important mentor was her high school science teacher, who encouraged her to attend college. Along the way, Temple found people who saw her strengths.

These are guidelines that parents should apply to all children, not only those with special needs. Neurotypical children usually learn turn-taking by osmosis in kindergarten. They often learn manners by mimicking the adults around them. At about puberty or sometimes earlier, they care about their personal appearance. Children with ASD (autism spectrum disorders), however, need direct instruction for many things that happen naturally for other children. Turn-taking, speech therapy, nutrition, manners, respect — Isabella is okay on all those fronts. Responsibility, outdoor time, and self-care definitely require more work.

Temple has reminded me that I need to raise my expectations for Isabella. She needs to clean up after herself and keep her half of the girls’ bedroom clean (her sister would be much happier). This will require me to make sure that it happens, breaking down cleaning into doable tasks. That means daily monitoring by me. She needs to spend more time outdoors or engage in more energy-expending activities, which means that I have to do this with her. Self-care, well, that’s not so easy. Isabella often uses too much shampoo, doesn’t rinse out the conditioner thoroughly, forgets deodorant, hates to brush her hair, and puts on clothing backwards. We’re working on the self-care portion and have a long way to go. I’m open to suggestions.

The next three keys to Temple’s success (and probably all children) are much more elusive for Isabella. We’re working on independence. She has walked to the store and the mailbox, crossing one street with a stop sign, by herself several times. Isabella has friends who go away to sleep away camp. I have rationalized that I never even sent my other, non-ASD kids to camp. A wise school director pointed out that my other children don’t need the experience that time away from the family garners. I get it, but I’m just not there yet. Funny thing, Isabella is begging us to go to sleep away camp this summer. There’s one not far from my father’s country home. I could move up there for the summer to be closer to Isabella…just in case.

What kind of learner are you?

Any parent of a child with a learning disability or anyone who has payed attention to her learning style knows that each person has a dominant way of learning. Some are auditory learners, taking in everything they hear. These are the students who actually remember lectures. Other are kinesthetic learners, who learn by doing. These are the students who thrive in lab classes and frequently rewrite notes while studying. And then there are the visual learners. Those whose eyes are vital to their education. Isabella is clearly of the final category. This was apparent years ago when the traditional teaching for children with dyslexia, Orton-Gillingham, failed to produce any results. Presenting words on index cards with accompanying stickers and no phonics is what kicked off Isabella’s reading.

That’s not when I realized she was a visual learner, however. We had watched Something’s Gotta Give, a favorite movie of mine set in the Hamptons in a house that most will only visit on screen. Much later, maybe years, Isabella saw Annie Hall, which featured the quite younger Diane Keaton. She immediately identified Ms. Keaton as the same woman who was in the beach movie and provided enough detail of the plot for a movie critic career. Directors would swoon over her — she loves every movie she sees. Then she went on to identify every other movie that she has seen in which Diane Keaton has starred — Baby Boom, Father of the Bride, Because I Said So, The Family Stone, and Shoot the Moon.

Okay, you might say, so what. Though Diane Keaton has aged since 1977 when she appeared in Annie Hall, her clothing in real life and in the movies has remained the same. (Was it that long ago? It seems like yesterday that women were wearing men’s ties and jackets.) How does that explain her immediate spotting of Sue Sylvester as Julia Child’s sister in Julie & Julia? When she told me that the character was the same woman as in television show Glee, I had no idea to whom she was referring. It’s Jane Lynch as both characters for sure, but I did not recognize her until Isabella pointed her out. And the productions were filmed maybe a year or two apart, certainly not enough to show an age difference. In defense of myself, I could point to the extremely varied costumes — ’40s era dresses in Julie & Julia and sweat suits for Glee. And I’m a visual learner, too!

Obviously, the costume change was not enough to stump Isabella.

School planing meeting

We just had a planning meeting for Isabella’s eduction with her school and caseworker. These are the meetings that I dreaded. In the past, I was known to break down sobbing or run out the meeting or both. I have not done that in a very long time. This meeting was about testing. Okay, for those of you who have taken standardized tests, these tests are much worse. Think about how many people who you know say, “Iam not a good standardized test tester.” Well, no kid with a learning disability is a good standardized test taker. They completely suck. These tests are developed to measure our kids’ weaknesses, not strengths. They are so demeaning.

Because Isabella has made such fabulous progress this school year, we can postpone that dreadful testing. She’s doing homework nightly for the first time. She’s answering comprehension questions correctly. She’s generalizing. This is perhaps the most thing to happen. Generalizing is a term that special ed teachers love to throw around. It means: taking what you learn in school and applying it to real life. Reading in class to reading street signs. Doing math in school to setting a table. She wants to read at home and does. And like many tweens, she knows how to do stuff on the computer and the Wii that her parents do not!

It’s all good! Could it be the diet?

Making gluten-free cupcakes

It’s the annual Feast at Isabella’s school and she thought it would be a good idea to have a gluten-free treat for her class. Well, probably really for her, but she’s a generous soul. So we embarked upon the baking. Per usual, my kitchen does not have all the necessary ingredients. No butter. Isabella offered to go around the corner to buy the butter. She has never gone to the store. It involved crossing a street.

She asked how much butter cost. Do not know, but it must be less than five bucks. Off she went. I looked at the clock. And she was back. With the butter. She ran into Rose. She told me that she spoke to Rose, but not for too long because she didn’t want me to think that she didn’t remember the way home. Good job. I can now put away the vodka.

We are making gluten-free lemon cupcakes that uses chestnut flour. They will be topped with coconut icing. Remember the lemon coconut cake from Entenmann’s? I do. (That was from my childhood, way before my gluten-free living.) The cupcakes are from a mix. Not my usual way of baking. But these are really, really good. I’m sure all the kids will love them.

Isabella did a great job creaming the butter and sugar. It can take a while with a hand mixer. I didn’t feel like lugging out my Kitchen Aide. The box lists water to make the batter, but doesn’t include water in the instructions. I added it, of course, because the batter was like cement without it. We used silicone cupcake holders. I love these. No more paper. Saving the planet one cupcake at a time. Oh, that would be a nice tagline.

Throughout the baking process, we have tuned into Glee on hulu. Thanks to my 15-year-old musical-lover (how did that happen with a mother who is a die hard Pink Floyd fan?), I am now addicted to this show. High school was never this interesting and fun. I find myself laughing out load…alone. That is always a good thing. Does anyone else else notice the uncanny resemblance between Mr. Shuester and Justin Timberlake? The hair, the moves, the voice, the bod. They’re the same. Reminds of Michael Jackson and Diana Ross. Did you ever see them in the same room together?

Okay, the coconut icing smells like dirty socks. It’s too old and unappetizing. Are the cupcakes okay without icing? Kids usually want the super sugary part. What to do? We found a box of Cherrybrook Kitchen icing. Fabulous! Success!

School & nutrition

Finally, a parent-teacher conference where the teacher didn’t recount all of Isabella’s shortcomings. How they have tried every math program available, including the one that I insisted on, and have had zero success. How her inability to stay on topic hinders all of her attempts at class participation. How reading, well, reading — Orton-Gilingham should be working; it works with every other child with dyslexia. I dreaded those meetings. Truth be told, I avoided them. I let the teachers phone me, so they couldn’t see my stricken face. This year, however, I filled out the form to attend the conference and remembered (rather than conveniently forgot) to attend. And, I’m glad I did.

Here’s what I heard. We are so proud of Isabella. She asks pertinent questions during current events. She answers all the comprehension questions about the book the class is reading correctly. She completes the telling time sheets correctly. She wrote in her journal. What? She wrote in her journal? She has a journal? That she writes in. Last entry: “My favorite thing about Halloween is giving the candy to the kids. I saw all the costumes.” Whatever you’re doing at home is working. Um, what’s different at home? Nothing concerning teaching. We’re a normal, disorganized family with two other kids at home. As part of Isabella’s nutritional healing, she’s taking a sort of power drink every morning. It has coconut milk, eggs, primrose, flax, and safflower oils, and phosphatidylcholine. She drinks it, along with a bevy of supplements, with no problem. In fact, she asks it.

Nutrition can change a child’s ability to learn, focus, and behave.

“Power” Drink (from Body Bio & Patricia Kane)

Mix everything together:

2 organic eggs

8 ounces coconut milk

1 tablespoon primrose oil

1 tablespoon 4:1 sunflower:flax oil*

E-lyte electrolyte drink*

liquid stevia to taste

1 tablespoon phospatidylcholine*

*available from BodyBio through a health professioanl

For more information about this potentially behavior-changing drink and nutrition counseling for children with ADHD, contact me at