Sunday, February 10, 2019

Autistic Life Skills: Noise Blocking Headphones

Disclaimer: I receive no financial incentive to write this post. I don’t generally post product links because I assume you know how to use google. Sometimes I do, just to make my point clearer. I don’t get any compensation if you make a purchase using those links. The point of this post, as with all of this blog, is simply to share my experience in the hope that it will make education better for the students who come next.

Probably the most common association with autism and sensory challenges are the over-ear noise blocking headphones that many children and adults wear due to extreme sounds sensitivity. I’m not generally sounds sensitive (which is a very good thing since to say my classroom is loud would qualify in the runnings for “understatement of the year.”) However, I do get sound sensitive when I have a migraine or when my anxiety is very triggered. So, after a bit of research on the difference between noise cancelling and noise blocking headphones (I found this article particularly helpful) I decided to invest in a pair of Pro for Sho noise blocking headphones. (Primary positive attributes: under $20 price point and they came in purple!)

They worked exactly as advertised. My husband was able to watch Game of Thrones in the living room while I went about my life in the rest of the house without my being bothered by it in the least. (I may be the only person in the world, but I really don’t like Game of Thrones.) But they also had two other benefits that I didn’t expect, which are the point of this post.

The first was that wearing it seemed to have the effect of dampening all of my senses, not just my hearing. I assume that has to do with the way in which the sensory system is all interconnected. However, I was able to do several cleaning tasks, which are usually very draining due to the onslaught of tactile and olfactory input, and barely notice the effect.

The second, and this was the real surprise, is that I almost immediately started craving the input they gave. (I’m a very strong sensory seeker.) I wore them later in the evening when I was alone in the quiet house just because I liked the way they felt on my head and made the world sound.

I did not anticipate that this type of sensory support would have the same type of psychological benefits as stimming, but it does. I haven’t seen anyone writing or talking about that benefit before, and I think as parents and professional begin to understand the benefits on fidgeting and stimming on the neuro-atypical brain, we need to explain the other use of sensory interventions with that same model. I know it will be part of my explanatory arsenal going forward. (And those purple headphones are going to find a permanent home in my bag!)

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Autistic Life Skills: Toothbrushing

Full Disclosure: I don’t get any money for telling you what products I use, like, or don’t like. My opinions are just that, my opinions. There are no product links on this page. I assume you know how to use google.

My goal, in this “Autistic Life Skills” series is simple. To, hopefully, provide a more comprehensive understanding of the complexities of developing skills that incorporate sensory challenges, so that other teachers and parents (and other autistics who struggle with those same skills) might find some guidance to approach the teaching of these skills with less frustration on everyone’s part. Hopefully, a way to end the episodes of “wrestling a crocodile” (as the parent of one of my students describes their nightly toothbrushing routine.)

As a child, I was lucky that toothbrushing was never a battle my mother chose to pick. I thought I was very clever in the ways I hid the fact that I wouldn’t do it from her. I wasn’t; she just chose not to fight me about it. Through the luck of good genetics and floride in the water, I never got a cavity, but that luck certainly had nothing to do with my (lack of) toothbrushing.

I was in my 30s when I stopped getting nauseous and sometimes physically sick at the dentist, because I was able to advocate for myself to not get any flavored pastes (they make me sick) and to skip the floride treatment (the texture and taste - yes I can taste it!) makes me gag.

I was nearly 40 when I finally developed a tolerance for the electric toothbrushes that the dentist recommended. I still hate the Sonicare ones and won’t use them. But I worked my way up with the pulsar ones (the vibrating ones that look like manual toothbrushes) and now can use the Oral-B electric toothbrush (well, the CVS generic version!) They have a smaller brush head that means the vibrational input in my mouth is more localized, and the handle doesn’t vibrate as dramatically, so I get the input (and cleaning power) without my whole face, hand, and arm vibrating, which I never could stand. I’m still waiting for the dentist to tell me that my toothbrushing has gotten good enough that I can stop going every three months. Maybe next time?

Why do I tell that story? Because most of my students do not have the language to explain things as clearly as I just did. And yet, as verbal and generally self-aware as I am, look at how long it took for me to figure it out and find relief. I’m not saying that everyone with sensory challenges experiences dental hygiene the same way I did. I’m saying these are the places to start looking when a student struggles.

Especially when working with an older student, it’s important to recognize that there is likely a trauma component to the resistance to learning this skill. Do your research: what’s been tried in the past? How does the routine go at home? What are dental visits like? For many of our students, it’s a battle of wills with the parent at home, and either restraint or sedation at the dentist office. This is a breeding ground for trauma. You can’t start with sensory desensitization, or do sensory desensitization alone, and expect it to be effective. It might be effective in the classroom if they have a positive relationship with you, but it won’t transfer to the home environment. You have to work with the student and the parent to build trust around the routine and more positive associations.

What does that look like in practice?

We start by getting the student to hold the toothbrush.
Then we work on bringing to their face (any part accepted)
Slowly we work toward bringing to the lips.
Next is getting them to open their mouth.
Once they will hold it in their mouth for a count of 10 we can start putting it in each section of the mouth.
Then work toward top and bottom of each section.
Only after that do I introduce the “brushing” motion.

Some students can and will skip steps.
Some students do better starting with the vibration on.
The vibration scares some students away (like it did me.)
For some students we alternate: do each step without and then with vibration before moving on to the next step.
That’s going to depend on their sensory profile, and also where their sensory regulation is that day. (I know I’m more sensory defensive when I’m anxious or tired.)

Toothbrushing is a challenge, but it shouldn’t be a battle. Take on the challenge, work with your student, but know when to pick your battles and don’t make it a battle you choose to pick. 

Sunday, November 4, 2018

When We Were Alone: Teaching our (Current) History with Residential Schools

The picture book study for this year’s Global Read Aloud was a pair of indigenous authors and illustrators. The use of language in the books was rich, and gave us ample opportunities to make connections to our own use of multiple communication strategies, as all of my students this year are multimodal AAC communicators. The themes fit beautifully into our social-emotional instruction, as we have been focusing on working together and what it means to be a community.

Then we reached the last book in the book study, “When We Were Alone” by Richard Anderson, illustrated by Julie Flett. The book makes great use of repetitive language that helps make the complex topic of indigenous residential schools more cognitively accessible. I have a student in my classroom who was previously placed at a residential school “far away from home” (as the story says) and who has a trauma history from that placement. I was initially a little apprehensive about reading this story with him. Would he understand it? Would he make the connection? From the first read-through, this student, who usually has difficulty sitting for lessons, sat with rapt attention for this story. His eyes were glued to every page as I read. It was clear the story had his interest. 

I did not draw, or ask him to draw, explicit connections to his own residential school experience. What we did was make explicit comparisons between the meaning behind the rules in the story “to make everyone the same” and the rules in our classroom “to be safe” “to get our work done” and “so everyone can participate.” My students’ active participation in these activities reinforced our classroom values more than any explicit teaching could have done.

I will say it explicitly here: My student’s former placement was a residential ABA program. While the stories are different, at far too many programs the strategies and intentions are the same as the story we read. ABA-based strategies, applied to appropriate skills, are not, by themselves, the problem. It’s the values and intentions that drive them that are deeply problematic and lead to student trauma. For teachers looking to broach this controversial topic with their class, this book may be a great place to start.

Monday, August 27, 2018

My Curriculum Resources

Disclaimer: I received no financial compensation for writing this post. I have no affiliation with any of the authors or publishers. I don’t even have an affiliate link with, so I won’t get any money if you buy anything through the links I didn’t put in this post. I’m just a teacher who wants to share what I’ve found works for me.

I’ve made somewhat of a name for myself for teaching content to students that other teachers had written off as “unreachable.” I frequently get asked is for advice on the best curriculum to use. (SPOILER ALERT: There isn’t one.) I’ve written before on the problems with pre-made curriculum (You Can’t Teach Self-Determination Out of a Box!) but since I know the daunting idea of having to create everything from scratch and individually for each student is what keeps many teachers away from providing curriculum access to students with complex needs, I wanted to expand on that notion and maybe make it feel a little less daunting and a little more accessible for teachers just starting down this path.

I don’t use any one curriculum per se, but do think that there is a lot to be said for using off the shelf curriculum as a starting point or building block. Timothy Walker makes that point very compellingly in Teach Like Finland (a very worthwhile read, but that’s a different post) and there are certain resources that I find I keep coming back to year after year as my curriculum building blocks despite the individual variability in my classroom student population.

To me, this one seems obvious, but I’m putting it here anyway. My first place to start is the state curriculum frameworks. ( I need them for assessment in ELA, Math, and Science, but I actually start with social studies, because that is the content that will drive my literature and give me an anchor for my science topics. My students are no where near meeting the standards as written, but MA provides what are called “access and entry points” for students who are not able to complete grade level work. I’ve written before about why I believe this grade level content access is so essential. (Assessing Our Place)

Math is always hard, especially as students get older. Traditional high school math feels light years away from students who are still struggling to master numbers and counting. Functional math like money and time can seem out of reach too. Yet music and movement are generally parts of all special education curriculum. If you look at them with an academic lens, what are they? Math.
My favorite resource is:
Math on the Move by Malke Rosenfeld (I’ve blogged about this book before!)
And one I’m just adding to my repertoire:
70 Play Activities for Better Thinking, Self-Regulation, Learning, and Behavior by Lynne Kenney, Psy.D.
I heard her speak a couple years ago about integrating music and play into learning and really liked what I heard. I was somewhat disappointed that most of the activities in this book are much more linguistic than exploratory, but I love her early Musical Thinking ideas, and how she builds in teaching students about how their brains work (that all important self-awareness part of self-advocacy we so often overlook!)

I actually really like the often over-looked phonics and high frequency word curriculum materials from Reading A-Z for teaching reading to AAC users. I’m not as much of a fan of their leveled readers for teaching reading, but I find they make great content textbooks. Level B, C, and D books are just about the right text level and text-to-picture ratio, and it saves me a lot of time creating my own content textbooks! (Special Ed Teacher Hack!) Plus, they often come with reading and vocabulary worksheets that I can adapt for unit vocabulary instruction. 

One of the first curriculum materials I was introduced to when I began my special education career over a decade ago was the Story Grammar Marker. I love the visual and tactile way it allows students to interact with the parts of a story. Literature and story has been one of the backbones of my instructional approach for as long as I’ve been teaching. For the research base for that instructional strategy, I point you at Story Proof: The Science Behind the Startling Power of Story by Kendall Haven.
New to my instructional repertoire this year is Hacking School Culture by Angela Stockman and Ellen Feig Gray (Published just this year, I blogged about it not long after it came out) It’s full of awesome teacher hacks, many of which I want to try and adapt for the classroom, but the one that really got my attention is the idea of empathy maps. The structure is very similar to that of Story Grammar Marker, and this year I’m looking forward to combining the two into a single classroom wide strategy for understanding what is going on around us. Which brings me to the next topic.

Social Emotional Learning:
Probably the best thing I took with me from a previous school that was a very poor fit for my teaching style was their social skills curriculum:
Skillstreaming the Elementary School Child: A Guide for Teaching Prosocial Skills (Third Edition) by Ellen McGinnis
I like the way it breaks down skills into discrete steps (although I often have to edit the steps, either to be less linguistic or to be more neuro-inclusive.) I also like the way it divides skills into different areas of focus. Last year my students focused on Listening from the “Classroom Survival Skills” section, Introducing Yourself and Playing a Game from the “Friendship-Making Skills” section, and Knowing and Expressing Your Feelings from the “Skills for Dealing with Feelings” section. This year, with a slightly different group we’ll focus on “Asking for Help (Classroom Survival Skills); Using Self-Control (Skill Alternatives to Aggression); Dealing with Boredom and Relaxing (Skills for Dealing with Stress).

Science/Social Studies:
I make extensive use of google and my local library for instructional materials and related literature to match the frameworks-aligned curriculum. I don’t keep as good track of the resources I use as I probably should. (Though I’ve gotten better at citing the literature, so I can keep using the same books for the same units.) There is one specific website, however, that bears mentioning here. That is the Perkins School For the Blind. Their website is a great repository of adapted lessons for students with visual impairments. I especially like using their science materials, as they do a great job making difficult concepts concrete and hands-on. Just because their lessons are modified doesn’t mean I don’t need to modify them, I do. (Most often, I need to supplement with before and after lessons to break down the concept further. Also, obviously, I need to create any related visual supports.) But they’re a great resource for teaching difficult concepts, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t include them here.

Obviously, the curriculum materials listed here, even with modification and suplementation, isn’t enough to create a well-rounded instructional day. It doesn’t even touch on the ADL and vocational instruction that are key parts of our academic day. These are tools I have found useful to support me in creating individualized instruction. Another way to think of them is as useful maps for the terrain. They’re not a GPS. You still need to plot your own course from September to June.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

The Mask in My Teacher Toolkit

I try very hard to create a classroom that is welcoming of students natural ways of moving, of interacting with the world, and of expressing themselves. In the adult autistic community, we talk a lot about masking, and the effects of it on self-esteem. And then I watch my neurotypical colleagues, completely unaware of what they’re doing, expect those masking behaviors. And I watch myself use them all the time as well. And in makes me wonder, am I doing a disservice to my students by not teaching those skills?

Masking is a skill. The more skills you have, the more opportunities are available to you. But what if our students grew up knowing, not just that masking exists, but that it is a choice? The social skills curriculums currently out there teach “this is what you have to do” but how different would the educational experience of the next generation of autistic children be if we taught it as “this is what the NT population does/expects.” What if our behavior expectations where “here is how to do it/fake it” and “here are reasons/times when you might want to.” 

I know full well that my ability to pass, and thus have control over disclosure, has given me opportunities I might not otherwise have gotten. (There’s a reason this blog is anonymous.) My students may never pass for NT due to other disabilities, but don’t I owe it to them to give them the skills to try if they want to? When I have struggled with social interactions, I’ve gotten instruction (I, personally, found Michelle Garcia Winner’s Social Thinking at Work and Ian Ford’s Field Guide to Earthings particularly useful.) Why shouldn’t they benefit from the same opportunities? As a special educator, isn’t that my job? To make the general education curriculum accessible to my students?

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Hacking Classroom Culture: A Blueprint for My Implimentation

There’s a picture I took last spring of my students during their social skills group. They’re playing a matching game. The rules of the game are: chose a picture and ask your peer if he has it. Peer tells the first person he has the match and gives it to them. First person makes the match and puts it in the box. The students in the picture look absolutely pained, like this was the worst thing I could have possibly asked them to do.

It’s not the academic task. Matching was specifically chosen because it’s a mastered skill and the one they default to when they’re not sure what is being asked of them. No, what is paining my students, who are accustomed to doing their academic work 1:1 with a teacher, is that just answering the teacher they’re working with (who will provide prompting and reinforcement) isn’t enough to complete this activity. Interacting with a peer is a lot more work!

Enter Hacking Classroom Culture: Designing Compassionate Classrooms by Angela Stockman and Ellen Feig Gray. I was struck by how their ideas would fit so sensibly into the outlines I already had in place. I loved how easily and sensibly they dovetailed with best practices in severe disabilities and prevocational training. Finally, someone had given me some tools to build a classroom community, instead of a class of students who happen to share the same room and teacher.

So what are we going to do?

Morning Meeting:
First off, I moved the basic calendar and schedule work out of morning group. The students all need 1:1 support to complete this task and can do it at different speeds and independence levels, so it makes more sense to make it part of their arrival/unpacking routine.
(You can view my trello board to see a full implementation of our morning meeting here:

One of the best practices in severe disabilities for eliciting attention and language is a mystery box. The idea is that you put an object in a box and the students have to use their senses/language to figure out what it is. Here, I’ve put a social language spin on the idea:
Place object of high interest to a specific student (or highly correlated with a specific person in the classroom/school) in a box.
Students can take turns making guesses about what it will be like based on sound/touch or opening the box and describing/identifying it (scaffold for skill level)
Once object is identified, students complete the activity it is used for (e.g. fill out attendance for secretary) and then identify/bring it to correct person (vocational delivery skill and social interaction skill integration)

An old tired idea you see in most special education classrooms is practicing greetings and personal information during morning meeting. Or the age-old variant of identifying who is at home/work/school. I’ve brought in some math instructional targets to keep it fresh (and keep us moving!) and brought back some good old-fashioned “show-and-tell” (with a new more social spin!):
Organize students/have students organize themselves using personal information (e.g. height, birthday month, age, etc) - visual models of data.
Each student has an opportunity to share a skill they are working on in class or something that happened at home with the rest of the class.
-Encourage community, not just what I did but who I did it with/who helped me do it and where I did it (what tools helped me be successful)
(Teachers can model too, but careful not to turn it into sharing on behalf of students!)
*Both teachers and students (probably mostly teachers at first) have the opportunity to point out things they saw others do - that they thought was cool or they might want to try themselves.* 

Social Skills Group:
The first idea I fell in love with when I read Angela and Ellen’s book was the idea of Empathy Mapping. I tweeted at the time, and I still think, that teaching Empathy Mapping in conjunction with Story Grammar Marker would be a powerful way to give students a structure and language to understand the social world around them. So I want to do exactly that. My students have been working on body parts and what they do. Our next step is to develop visual empathy maps. I want to use folders, with one side being the self, what I am seeing, hearing, saying, feeling, etc. The other side will have a pocket that can be a generic person (background) or you can place a picture or a specific person, and have the same options (what are they seeing, hearing, saying, feeling, etc.) The folder format will allow me to keep the visual supports for both sides in the center.

Ideas I’m Still Pondering:
* I’ve usually used the standard Story Grammar Marker imagery/materials when I teach that unit/skill. I’m wondering if it would make more sense to use the same imagery as the Empathy Maps for students to more clearly see the connection. Haven’t made a decision yet.
* I’d love to invite some of our non-classroom school people to join us for morning meeting (I originally was calling it morning cafe for this reason) but I’m not sure if that will help or hinder the social connection of the objects that are related to them (if they are not in their expected context.) Maybe try and see what happens? Most won’t be able to come except once in a while anyway!

Next Steps:

My copy of Teach Like Finland is supposed to arrive later today. Can’t wait to see what other ideas I find!

Friday, June 29, 2018

But in Purple....

For years now, I have described myself as a “part time AAC user” but beyond my preference for communicating by text and email whenever possible, I’ve never taken any steps to communicate multi-modally outside the home. (At home, I use a combination of gesture, sign, objects, facial expression, and cat sounds in addition to speech. My husband has become an able translator over the years!)

I have the same communication software as my students use downloaded on my phone and tablet. (Ostensibly, I got it for school.) I’ve tried using it, but it’s way too slow to ever be functional for me. Also, I find myself simplifying my language in order to use the vocabulary that is available instead of choosing the exact words and sentence structures I want, which slows me down further and can obfuscate my meaning. And so, I do use it for school, but I don’t use it for me.

This past week, I finally purchased a text-based AAC app. I hadn’t been able to justify the expense to myself. After all, I talk. A lot. And I wasn’t really sure if I would ever use it outside the house. So I found one that had almost all the features I wanted and didn’t cost as much as the ones with all the bell and whistles. The first thing I noticed about it? I liked it a lot better once it was purple. In fact, when I set up my second device, getting the color right was higher priority for me than getting my vocabulary set up. That’s particularly interesting because I’m usually not a visual person at all. I tend to ignore avatars, backgrounds, etc. (My NLD exacerbates this tendency.) Yet, if it made that much difference to me, who usually doesn’t care about such things, how much do our students care? Our students who we bombard with color choices at every corner “to provide language opportunities?” How often do we even pay attention to the cosmetic aspects of their device? We use vocabulary color coding, but what about background colors? Case colors? Fonts? There are a lot of ways to personalize a device beyond content that we often overlook. 

I hear a lot that “we have to motivate the student to use the device/to communicate (or they won’t.)” What difference might it make if the student was able to set up the device to be more visually pleasing (or interesting) to them? I haven’t used mine in the wild yet. I haven’t needed to. (It’s vacation week. I haven’t actually gone out much!) But I’m motivated to. I keep wanting to add vocabulary that might be useful. I haven’t had that before. I never would have thought that being purple would have made so much difference.