Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Result: Promoted to 2nd Grade

Yesterday was Robbie's fourth and final parent/teacher conference of the year. After all was said and done, the key piece of data: He's been promoted to 2nd grade. I can't say I was terribly nervous about the ultimate result (the promotion). But two months ago, I wasn't so sure. Back then, I wasn't even confident about which school he'd be able to attend.

Given the immediate improvement in his performance after changing classrooms in March, much of that worry evaporated - but not all of it. Some of it still lingered.

We've known that Robbie is smart for a while. However, we were concerned that he'd be able to demonstrate that. In kindergarten, he validated that concern. His test scores ranged from 100% to 0%. We quickly figured out that if he was interested in the test, he did well. If it was a computer-administered test and he wasn't interested, he clicked on the mouse as fast as he could, regardless of the answer, until he was done and could begin playing. Joy and I worked with his teacher and the ARD committee to insure he had close monitoring during tests and the scores moved to where we expected.

Test scores weren't the issue in first grade, although we did see a score drop a bit when they let him try to do it too long on his own. The issue was his flat out rejection of doing any work. I feared that his behavior could hold him back, not the grades.

Everything changed when he changed classes in March. We've learned a few things from this process.

It's very common for children on the autism spectrum to get overwhelmed either by a sensory overload or an anxiety overload. We've known that Robbie is a bit of a perfectionist. What we didn't know was how this could build up over time. Getting things wrong or failing to do things weren't isolated occurrences. They were cumulative events.

In his previous class, he wasn't sure where he stood on a daily basis (which is 'normal' - kids don't get daily report cards). If he missed a problem, he thought he'd dug himself a little hole. When he couldn't do an assignment, he dug a little deeper. When he was overwhelmed by a homework assignment, he dug even deeper. Pretty soon, he was halfway to China with no hope of getting out. He saw this mountain of insurmountable work that he could never complete. Since he was never going to catch up, he gave up. Unfortunately, he was unable to communicate this anxiety to anybody. Everyday had become an anxiety overload and it began the minute he opened his eyes. Welcome to Autism World.

On his first day with his new teacher, she explained to him that he was starting with a clean slate. What was done was done. He was getting a fresh start. I don't think she had any idea just how powerful of a message this was for Robbie (nor did I). For him, the hole he'd been digging was magically filled. The insurmountable mountain of work had disappeared and his anxiety went right along with it. I now believe this was why the change in him was so drastic. Like a light switch, his anxiety was turned off. Everything got better.

Another thing the teacher did was set up a daily scorecard for him. He has five categories of work to complete each day. If he completes his work in a category he gets a smiley face. If he doesn't, he gets a sad face. There are also consequences. If he gets four or five smiley faces a day, he earns a sticker from the teacher. Five stickers earn him the choice of free computer time, free choice time, or no morning work. In addition, if he earns four or five smiley faces a day he can play on the computer when he gets home. Three or less? No computer.

At first, I thought the power of this approach lay only in the consequences and rewards. I now believe there has been an additional benefit. Every day is a new day. There's no buildup. There's no hole being dug. The mountain never becomes bigger than a small pile of dirt. Every day is fresh.

In hindsight, these solutions seem painfully obvious. Unfortunately, they're not - by a long shot. Despite the trial and error nature and unpredictable success rates for any efforts relating to improving an autistic child's environment, dramatic changes like this are rare but not unheard of. When the child is struggling with a sensory or an anxiety overload and the source of the overload can be eliminated, the results can be this dramatic. We've seen it before. However, many obstacles stand in the way of achieving them.

The first is identification. Since the number of conditions or situations that can overload a child on the spectrum is almost unlimited. Knowing which one (or ones) is causing the behavior is almost impossible to predict. In the case of Robbie's classroom issues, our guesses included problems with other students, fluorescent lighting (a known issue with autism), and even the design of the room itself (door vs. no door). His previous teacher did everything she possibly could. But without being able to recognize the issue, it was hard for any of us to know what to do except create a clean slate.

The second is communication. Although Robbie is experiencing the overload, it doesn't mean he can always recognize it, identify it or communicate it. Asking him about it can produce clues but not specifics. This is incredibly frustrating for us as well as him.

And finally, there is an issue of consistency. What caused an overload yesterday might not cause an overload today, but it might cause one tomorrow. At this point, its like playing a game of whack-the-mole until you get lucky.

Nevertheless, this is a huge victory for us; one that could have long lasting effects in helping Robbie manage his situation. It can make a difference in how he manages his school work from here on out. It can even help him manage his career someday.

It can also disappear tomorrow and become meaningless. That's the way it is with autism.

Still, we're going to enjoy the hell out it. Combining yesterday's win at Robbie's parent/teacher conference with Kelly earning her Bronze Award in Girl Scouts, I'd say yesterday was pretty damn good day.

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