Friday, August 31, 2012

Pure and Lasting...Joy!

Today was the last day of the Next Steps Academy and I couldn't just go home!  Instead I found myself at this great place in downtown Milwaukee called "Splash" where I could just sit and reflect and paint...this hummingbird!

It had to be a hummingbird, you see because the hummingbird is the symbol for JOY!  There is no other word to describe this week.  There is no other way to show just how inspiring the last five days have been, not just to me but to every single adult who had the honor of working with this awesome group of fifteen students who all have autism.

Today was the "performance" and with that knowledge came a very real sense of fright.  Like that little hummingbird, there was lots of movement in and out of the room, sometimes lighting for a moment but then up again and flitting from one spot to another.  We made it through a very short "dress rehearsal" and tested everyone's ability to be flexible.  Some did better at that than others.  One boy had been singing our daily song loud and clear and at the last minute we asked him if he would like to lead the whole group in that song.  He didn't hesitate and just said "Sure".  And he didn't let us down.  He stood tall and proud and sang out loud and clear, leading us through the practice.

Then showtime arrives.  The room is packed.  The kids are doing the best they can to stay in one location.  One boy sat in a chair reading a book, ignoring the growing crowd, and periodically putting his arm on my leg which was his way of asking me to rub it.  One boy stayed in the hallway until it was time to perform, another started playing a game with the teacher...anything to pass the time.  At exactly 11:30, one anxious student loudly announced, "Alright, it's time for Ms. Jenn to start the show!"

Early on, during the initial interviews, one boy had said that all he hoped for was "two minutes of fame!"  Well, today everyone of the fifteen students got at least two minutes of fame!  The cameras rolled and people smiled until their faces hurt.  And in thirty minutes, we were done!  The kids took a bow, the audience applauded (silently) and all of a sudden it was over.  Although everyone was encouraged to stay and visit after the performance, the kids were anxious to leave, already on to the next thing which was "What's for lunch?"

What they didn't realize is that they left us all today...they left us now with a void!  We were watching these incredible hummingbirds, flitting in and out of a skit or a song or a game, and they not only shared their fears, anxieties and factual (sometimes blunt) view of how things should work but they willingly shared their intelligence, their talents, their unique and profound gifts.  They filled our days with a kaleidoscope of color that brought tears to our eyes.  They filled the time so intensely that we left every day exhausted but unable to stop thinking about them and wishing we could have had just one more week!

I asked one boy if he thought he would come back again in the spring.  He said "Well, yes, I think I will.  Will all the other kids in NS1 come back too?"  "I hope so," was all I could say.  And then a mom reaches out to touch my arm.  She is being hurried to the exit by her son.  As she leaves, she says "We will have love in our hearts for First Stage forever!  Thank you for this week!"

I think from everyone of the adults who worked with this group of kids in Next Steps Academy this week, we too will have love in our hearts... for these kids, forever!

Ok, one last funny story shared:  One of the boys is laying on the floor and won't get up.  The teacher says "Come on, it's time to get up!"  His response "I can't get up.  I have autism!"  And she of course replied "So does everyone else in here and they are all standing right now!"

Thank you to everyone who read through my version of this incredible journey.  I have been truly blessed to have had the opportunity to participate this week.  Writing about it at the end of each day just helped me collect my thoughts and relive the JOY!

Thursday, August 30, 2012

It's Already Thursday!

This week went by fast,  but with each day there was growth. I wish I would have had the opportunity to watch the older group as much as the younger group.  I can only say that something happened today with the younger ones that made it feel like we had mastered an ultimate goal.

  • Monday, everyone was quiet and apprehensive.  
  • Tuesday, silliness reigned.  
  • Wednesday, excessive energy sent some of the students over the edge.  
  • But on Thursday, we reached calm!

We figured out that we didn't need to rev their engines up; we needed to slow them down!

 "Look at me.  Do this (touch your head), do this (touch your shoulders), do this (put your arms up in the air)" - a game that brought focus back to the group - was used over and over again throughout the first part of the morning with group one.  

Then we started the second part of the morning relaxing flat on the floor and rubbing our arms, shaking our fingers, squeezing our shoulders.  The engines calmed down and fun filled the space for everyone again.  Yesterday, by the end of the morning, three of the kids needed to retreat to the quiet room.  Today, everyone stayed and everyone played!

One activity was to come up with a problem that one hero tries to solve but can't and then a superhero comes in to save the day.  These were not long running skits, mind you, but the kids were able to quickly come up with an idea, compromise on the final product, and perform the skit to the rest of the group.  Now, I think there was some influence from certain video game characters but I'm too old to actually be current on all of that so, to me at least, it was amazingly imaginative.

Then we tried making up an info-mercial.  This one was a little harder because not everyone was sure what that was.  In fact, one of the students said "I don't know what that means but I do know what introvert and extrovert means. Can I ask everyone which one they are?"  We told him that he could do that during the break.  Then the question was posed again.  What is an info-mercial?  One young man matter-of factly just said "It's a commercial about a product that you don't really need!"  And that set the stage.

Tomorrow, the kids will put on a skit for the parents.  Yesterday, while trying to put it together, one student left the room because he couldn't deal with the choice of song being played on the piano.  Another had a melt down right in the room because he was worried about how to make a choice of whether he should or shouldn't be the bad guy!  Today, the same song was played on the piano and, this time, noise blocking headphones made it possible for student one to stay.  And the question of to be or not to be the bad guy never came up so student number two just calmly joined the skit as one of the passengers on the train.  Our skit is about a train for very good reason.  One student is continuously sharing departure times of trains to Chicago.  He will be the conductor in the skit tomorrow

The best quote of today though comes from him actually.  Everyone was laughing hard while playing a version of Duck, Duck, Goose, and he said "I laughed so hard I nearly leaked some oil!"

Oh my goodness, I am going to hate to see this week come to an end.

PS - There are 5 extroverts, 4 introverts, and 3 who think they are both!

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Creative Genius Tied Up In Knots!

Day three of Next Steps Academy finds me firmly placed with group one.  They are younger.  They have an energy that quickly gets out of control. And they have an independent creativity that is surprising.  Their favorite game is "What's Your Business?"  We go around the circle, the first person names the business, the next person responds with what we sell there, and the third person  quickly throws out a slogan for this business.  It's fast.  It's spontaneous.  It's unpredictable. And they love it!  The only one I can remember is a little gruesome so beware!  Business - A barbershop, What do you sell? - Decapitated heads stuffed with stuffed animals.  What's your slogan? - Haircuts priced so cheap, you'll lose your mind!  Not all of them involved losing body parts but each of the kids love being quick and the more creative the better. Nobody's idea is bad.  Nothing is ever wrong.  Well, I take that back.  We had to put a stop to one boy's use of a pretend firearm for every skit.

Today, they formed small groups and developed short skits with a beginning, middle, and end.  Today, we saw more creativity and more anxiety.  More willingness to share talents and more openness about sharing fears.  They worked hard at controlling themselves well enough to be an audience while each group performed and the adults are learning techniques that work to bring the energy down if necessary - back rubs, deep pressure, hugs, especially hugs!

While group one was working on following directions and self control, group two was focused on a short script for the Friday performance that the teachers say is going to be awesome.  They are clearly enjoying each other and are quickly forming friendships.

And, what about our lone boy?  Well, after getting to know him a bit better and some serious brainstorming between First Stage teachers, he had a fantastic day today!  He handled two stories that were clearly "not real" and he spent a solid fifteen minutes in with the group, sharing and listening with everyone else.  The best part, though, is the commitment of other adults here to make this week work for everyone.  Members of the costume department took him under their wing.  They found out yesterday that he has an interest in designing things.  They saw that he had an interest in costumes so they drew up a pattern for him to sew.  They also showed him how puppets are made and offered to help him make one.  His teacher said "You should have seen his face light up!"

So what have the adults learned so far?  You really do need a Plan B... and C... and D.  When a child with autism gets "out of control", he really can't control it.  All of us are completely focused on saying calm and just working with it!

One student couldn't handle the last activity of the day.  He did but he didn't want to have a role in a short skit.  He wanted but he didn't want us to decide for him.  It became a vicious cycle that he couldn't stop, nor could we.  Everyone else in the room kept a focus on the skit.  We finally found the perfect blend of a quiet space, deep pressure, and his book.  When his mom got there, he was calm again.  The last thing he said before he left?  "Let's just wipe this out of our memories, ok?  We'll just pretend it never happened and we don't need to talk about it again, ok?'  I asked him if I could give him a hug before he left.  He said "You can give me a little one.  Big ones are saved for my mom!"

And what did one of the teachers say at the end of today?  "My face hurts from smiling so much!"

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Do All The Other Kids Here Have Autism?

It was day two of the Next Steps Academy and the energy level was high!  When we laughed, we laughed a little louder...and maybe a little too long.  When we were told to spin, we spun but sometimes couldn't stop.  Still, almost everyone tried everything at least once.

Remember the boy from yesterday who got up and left the "Beginning of Day"?  Today, he stayed there for the entire time, just positioned at the back of the room.  He had brought two new books.  One was about science projects that could be done in a hurry but he was adamant that you should never do things in a hurry like that!  When everyone moved to their small group, he politely said "No thank you.  I'll just go read my books."

We pretended to make up conversations speaking gibberish to a partner. "Have a happy conversation.  Now, pretend you're angry.  And now be excited.  Don't use your hands and feet, just use your voice." The teacher asked the boy in the quiet room if he'd like to join in that activity.  "Don't you think it sounds like fun?"  "No, that's not a real language! Why would anyone talk like that.  It's not real!"

We made sounds that we might hear in a swamp.  One boy spontaneously gave another a compliment, "Wow, that was a really good frog noise.  I can't do that!"  Some were better at making the sound of the wind.  Some made no sounds but pretended to be an alligator.

By mid morning, everyone was ready for a break.  The group in Room One got their snacks and a book and went off to different parts of the room to be alone.  The group in Room Two stood in small clusters having conversations with each other.  The difference between the two rooms was interesting and possibly due to the difference in their ages.

By the second part of the morning, the teacher with the one young man asked him if he wanted to make friends this week.  He said "Well yes, I do."  To that, the teacher replied, "Well, you can't make friends if we sit alone in this room every morning."   He thought about that for a bit and then said "Do all the other kids here have autism?"  And she said "Yes they do and they are in the other rooms making friends."  And so, for a part of the morning, the boy joined the group, sat with them in a circle, and answered the question of the day.  "What do you want to be when you grow up?"  His answer, "I want to be a scientist."  And then he continued with more and more information.  At one point, the boy next to him asked a question and he said "Excuse me, let me finish please!" So, we'll have to work on making friends but at least he entered the room...for a while.

It would be great to be able to say that all of Day Two went smoothly but that would not be completely true.  As the second session wore on for the younger group, one boy was making announcements letting us know which train was leaving the terminal at that time and what the chances were that they were running on time.  Another boy began asking "How many more minutes?" and he fell apart before the time elapsed.  One had his hands over his ears because it had gotten a little loud and the youngest one tried playing deaf when he didn't like the directions and when no one paid attention to him, he left the group altogether.  He had grown tired of not being able to make up his own plays.

Still, by 11:45, they all regrouped for End of Day.   Our lone boy, once again willingly shared in front of the whole group and many more offered to share acknowledgments.

Day two was about reaching a new level of comfort at the academy!  Day Two stretched all of try something new,  to get quiet when we wanted to make noise, to handle a little more frustration, to last a little longer, and to try out some of that advice from yesterday...there's always Plan B!

Monday, August 27, 2012

Day One - "I Just Want You To Know, You Are All Loved!"

Day one for Next Steps Academy began with nervous anticipation felt primarily by the parents and teachers.  The students seemed calm, prepared with their backpack which held a snack and self selected comfort items.  Without hesitation, each one followed an adult back to the meeting rooms.  Some parents followed and some just watched in stunned resignation.  "I guess he'll be fine.  I'll just go then.  See you at noon."

"Beginning of Day" large group started off with exercise warm ups and announcements.  Three minutes into it, though, one student picked up his backpack, a yoga mat, and his water bottle and said "This is too much!"  He headed for the door followed closely by an adult.  Without incident, he made it to a quiet room where he spent the majority of the morning; looking at his book of lego kits, and complaining about not being able to ever finish what he wanted to say...but wait until you hear how his first day ends.

After large group, the kids were divided into two smaller groups.  One room was for students, ages 11-14 and in another room for students ages 14-18.

One of the older boys wanted to start by saying something. So he formally stood and said, "I just want you to know, you are all loved!"  And so the first morning began!

An hour of drama and an hour of music was the plan, but both first day activities were heavily movement oriented.  The lead teacher began and amazingly all the students followed - activity after activity.  And the laughter filled each room!  Spontaneous actions, blunt comments, unexpected movements all brought joy to the kids and the adults alike.

Do you know what pantomime means?  "Yes, I do.  It's pants that are mine!"

One student quietly writes a note on a whiteboard.  "Are we going to do any Shakespeare?"  A teacher reads it and calmly says, "I agree.  I would like that too."  And so it went.

We pretended to lift and pass heavy balls and tiny microscopic balls.  We formed lines and walked, first fast, then as slow as possible.  Then everyone focused on the teacher who stood quietly at the front of the room and started making gestures with her hand. Soon everyone understood what each gesture meant and followed along.  Before the activity ended, they had all taken turns being the teacher.  Then we started to learn a couple of songs, one complete with a hand clapping rhythm.  By the time the morning classes ended, two students were moving arm in arm, one student was wrapped up tight in the blanket that he had brought from home, one student had chewed through a whole pack of gum and kept asking "How many minutes more?"  But they all made it successfully to "End Of Day" where their parents were waiting.

Ms. Jenn said, "Would anyone like to share something that they learned this morning?"  One teacher said, "I would love it if someone would help me show how we did the Ball Activity."  With confidence and courage, one student (the gum chewer) said, "Oh, I will!"  And as he got up, so did many more!  And laughter again filled the room.  That was followed by someone volunteering to act out a pantomime with a partner.  The partner was amazingly willing. Everyone, parents and students,  got involved in guessing what they were doing.  "I was a butterfly and he was a butterfly catcher."

Remember the boy who left the room after three minutes of the Beginning of Day large group?  Well, he was jumping up and down in the back of the room for End of Day obviously excited about something.  After everyone had shared an activity, his teacher of the day said, "I think we have one more."  Straight up to the front he went followed by his teacher saying "You have to see if you can guess what I am doing.  It's ok if you can't guess though.  I will tell you."  And away they went - he pretending to be an alien and she pretending to be a spaceship.  When they finished, everyone applauded.  He handled the noise with grace.  In fact, he smiled and took a bow!  Then he hurried to his spot at the back of the room.

Day One ended already with tears and hugs.  We did it!  And the kids?  Well they just said "I'll see you tomorrow!"

Saturday, August 25, 2012

"There's Always Plan B"

They came to us, one at a time, with a mom or dad, an uncle or aunt, or both.  They came to meet us, to tell us about themselves, or to let their parents do the talking.  Some knew why they were meeting us but not all were sure.  What we learned about them is the beginning of our story.

"He's quiet in the morning you know.  Sometimes you have to push down on his head or do wall push-ups.  He memorizes scripts and sometimes, to get him to stop scripting you just say 'Put a bookmark in it'.

"He loves Seinfeld trivia and smooth jazz but it make him angry when someone fake cries."

"I've been in plays.  I can handle a lot."  "We'd like him to stand up for himself more, to take the lead once in awhile."  "Oh, I don't know about that.  I'm not sure really."

"I want to be a Christian singer and a chemistry teacher.  I'm not so good in front of people though.

"He looks like he's not paying attention but really he can repeat back everything that you've said.  No, he's not shy."

"He can imitate voices.  Do Ernie!"

"Why do I want to do this Academy?  What's my goal?  Well, maybe I want to know the history of First Stage.  Is that why I'm here?"

"I brought along some videos for you to see him playing his classical piano.  He doesn't like to practice.  He would rather play video games but he loves it when the audience applauds.  He loves getting attention for playing piano."

"I like to play with legos."  "Tell them what you do with them."  "Well, I like to create sets and then make stop action videos."

"He was once in an elementary play.  He's done intensive autism therapy and music therapy.

"It says here that I will 'Conquer my fears'.  What does that mean really?  Will I have to eat spinach?  I don't like spinach.  What does 'Take a risk' mean?  Does that mean I will have to climb Mt. Everest?  Mom, I don't think I can do this!"

"People say I'm highly intelligent.  What do you think that means?"

"We want him to be more confident.  We want him to make more statements, to stand up for himself, to set realistic goals, to not be so shy, to have an opportunity for a creative outlet, to be flexible, to meet friends, to have something to be excited about, to regulate his voice, to make a friend."

And what happens when you get upset or anxious about something?  "We have him take deep breaths, or go for a walk."  "He likes to draw." "The End."  "That's what he says when he's done talking about something."  "So if you're done what do you do?"  "Well, there's always Plan B.  I just come up with Plan B."

Monday morning is the first day of Next Steps Academy.  It has been designed specifically for children with autism.  The teachers have met for hours with a trainer.  Social stories have been written along with simplified versions of our one-on-one interviews.  We feel like we know them all but each is so very different.  We want them to feel comfortable but this will be an uncomfortable experience for them.  We want them to learn something new but it might be us who learns the most.  And what will we do if this doesn't work?  Well, there's always Plan B!