4C, 4 Momma, 4D, 4A, and 4B

4C, 4 Momma, 4D, 4A, and 4B
Most of the Four me (and you) fam

Sunday, November 20, 2011

What a week. Sigh.

The great news, of course, is that we're all still breathing. Nothing of the rest of the story really matters at all.

The traveling 4Daddy, the strep throat, the 103 fever, the trying to barf to get out of going to school because a sibling didn't have to go (just guess which one pulled that?!), the weekend travel to visit family....that will all fade by middle of next week.

That really just leaves me with autism. Mostly these days, autism really doesn't cause me too much grief. I'm square and content with its presence in my life, 4A and 4Daddy and I are well-supported in all things autism, and 4A's symptoms are largely managed and treated with the supports we have in place for her. Autism always adds a layer of complexity and "work" to our days, but those are largely unnoticeable; "it's our lot in life. It's not a lot, but it's our life," to quote Phyllis Diller in "Bugs Life."

I've shared with you some the struggle we're having this year as 4A adjusts to third grade. Adjusts, you asks? As in still currently adjusting? How can that be, you ask? Because we're a good three months into the school year. Yep. It takes her awhile, generally, to get everything down, test all the kinks out of her teachers' systems and styles, and get down to business. This year, the adjustment has been lengthened by the difficulty she's been having in reading.

By way of background to give this latest struggle meaning, 4A is a voracious and gifted reader. As a second grader, she read the first Harry Potter book in two days. There is not a word she can't decipher and very few that she can't spell. She understands what she reads, and she often scripts (ad nauseum) what she reads.

That being said, reading is the subject in which she struggles the most. Our children's school groups its readers by level, according to how they do on benchmark assessments, from what I gather. In kindergarten, she was in the second level reading group. 4A walked into that year unable to read even one word. She left reading Junie B. Jones volumes at a rapid clip.

In first, second, and third grade, accordingly, 4A was grouped in the first level group. That first level group has a plug-in a few days a week for enrichment. The enrichment consists of establishing higher-level thinking skills, working on word roots, inferring from texts, and responding to Socratic dialogue. In these years, 4A has traveled to reading, meaning that she has had a different teacher for reading then she has had for the rest of her day.

Here's where it starts to get tricky, my friends. ("It's time to rock around to rock around its right on time, its tricky. Tricky tricky tricky"--big ups to Run DMC.) What causes the trouble...the switch to a different teacher who has a different style, system, and set of expectations OR the nature of skills required in the level one group?

4A has taught her school team and I a lot in reading these past three years to help us flesh out the answer to this conundrum. First, we've learned that she's more compliant behaviorally when the behavioral systems in both her homeroom and reading class are the same and tied into one another. This allows better reinforcement via her overall behavioral system at home. Second, we've learned that while 4A may appear "reluctant," she, in fact, just needs more support. Those supports have included everything from assigning the order of her work to using a timer to checking for completion.

Fially, we've learned that we have to be exactingly descriptive and explicit in our requests and instructions. This one is super crucial. If we really want to know what a reader would learn from an article, then we need to ask that and not "why would someone read" said article. Well, if you're okay with "to get smarter" for an answer, then go ahead and use the first formulation. (And, yes, that really was her answer to the question.) And, if you want her to do more, you won't get more _______ (description, support, information, fill that blank in how you like) if you just say "give me more" because she'll just writhe and complain. But, if you tell her she must keep writing until she gets to the back of the page, she'll give you more. Only one word more on the back of the page. Only one word. On the back. Just one. Always just one. But, she does what you ask.

Aspies are literal beings; inference isn't preferred or sometime even tolerated. Inferences aren't there in the black and white of the text. For an Aspie, this means there is no right answer. There may be a "best" answer for us neurotypicals and our teachers, but this "best" rather than right-or-wrong business confuses an Aspie. But, the Aspie looks very bright (especially mine), reading and writing and spelling at an abnormally/amazingly high level.

Now, Dr. Steve has been letting us know for years that the level of inference and abstraction required in third grade reading is a LOT. Friends of older children had prepared us for how different third grade is for children, in terms of the level of work, the need for self-management of materials, and the starts of increased complexity of social demands. We knew this year was going to be hard...for her and us. I honestly think I was prepared. I don't know if I hit the ground running hard enough. But, that's really irrelevant in terms of NOW (it informs the future for me but doesn't bear weight on the now of the situation).

This year in reading, as in years' past, 4A has struggled. She has been inflexible, both in her thinking and in taking direction from peers and teachers even when her own answers are off-track. Her answers have appeared half-assed and off base at times (and, from best I can gather, most times). She has been oppositional, tries to escape uncomfortable or new situations, and zones out frequently.

Dr. Steve went in to observe 4A in reading shared his observations with reading teacher and me, and then recommended that I rely a little heavier on SPED for in-class modifications for 4A in reading. From there on, things got confused and circular and s.l.o.w.

There's been a circular and slow discussion between myself and SPED with reading teacher about whether supports are necessary, how long they're necessary, and in what form they're necessary. Dr. Steve was clear about what was needed, but we couldn't all get on the same page as to how best to implement his vision. There was a lot of concern by some that the use of supports would limit 4A's thinking and would make state-mandated assessments in the spring difficult.

As a footnote, experience in special educaton shows that supports are usually temporary, weaned out as the student masters the skill. Moreover, 4A has specifically shown her team that she weans quickly. It is also law that modifications or adjustments can be made for disabled students who are required to take state-mandated assessments. If a child is entitled to supports under his/her IEP, those supports can (and should) be made or added during the state-mandated assessments.


But confusion, friends, is confusion, and the clock is ticking on this school year. Third grade, for all students, is a pivotal time in a student's education; skills that s/he learns in this third grade year are foundational for later years, more so than any year up until third grade.

We decided, then, with Dr. Steve and Dr. G's guidance and support and recommendation, that we needed to change something. What we are doing in reading this year isn't working. Could we have modified things so that they could work? Maybe. And by maybe I mean yes in the isolated/idealistic sense but maybe in the realistic/ pragmatic sense.

At a recent IEP meeting, I raised my concerns about reading, both this year's struggles and what we've learned in past years. 4A's AMAZING classroom teacher was able to give super great data on 4A's capabilities with supports in place versus with them not in place. This amazing teacher "gets" 4A on a very organic level, is extremely willing to support or modify as Dr. Steve deems necessary, and is able to flex on the fly with 4A because she "gets" her so well.

What we were able to come up with is absolutely the best for 4A and her chance of success this year. She is being moved from the highest level group to the lowest. Not because it's the lowest, per se. But because her classroom teacher runs it, a lot of explicit scaffolding for skill acquisition is used there, and 4A needs more support. She'll use a parallel text there, and modifications can be made to texts and exercises to more meet her academic needs. And support there she will get, both from her amazing classroom teacher, who will now also be reading teacher, and her SPED who plugs into that reading group each day. 4A will get more independent reading time in this group, more structure, and more real-life application exercises. All of these things are wonderful for her, and everyone thinks she will blossom there, acquiring skills quickly and perhaps, dare we dream, moving beyond just what's required and maybe getting closer to that potential that's been so oft discussed this year.

Wonderful for her. Yes. Sad for 4daddy and I. I liken the feelings we have about this to those we've had at all of her other autism crossroads...following the most stringent behavioral plan Dr. Steve could create even though it was hard and felt backwards, starting medicine, and pulling her out of that first ill-fated preschool. It's always proven to be best for her, but it's always hurt a lot for us. Are we making the right decision? Did we fight hard enough for her? Are we contributing to greater understanding about high-functioning autism?

So, while our hearts are hurting, here's what we're trying to remember...

(1) 4A was struggling in that reading class. She was frustrated, and her classmates and teacher were frustrated with her apparent half-assed-ness. 4A certainly does not need more social difficulty. Dr. Steve believes that the half-assed-ness comes from a place of lack of support. Getting support will cure half-assed-ness, which will cure not fully participating, which will go a long way towards curing the social piece in her life.

(2) The classroom teacher totally "gets" 4A on a very organic level. It's intuitive for classroom teacher to support 4A: classroom teacher is able to think on the fly for 4A much like we do or Dr. Steve does. That can only be a good thing. Being with a teacher who genuinely understands what she needs has to help on all fronts: frustration, self-esteem, social, happiness (both hers and our family's).

(3) The students don't know the rating of the various groups. So 4A doesn't really know that she's moving down, and to be clear, she isn't going down. Her texts and tasks will stay at her level, but she'll have more explicit directions for answering questions and doing work. 4A needs that. Dr. Steve is clear about that (and that guy is NEVER wrong where 4A is concerned). We couldn't figure out a way to get the supports in her other reading group, and this move lets us get that for her quickly and easily.

(4) 4A's bestie is in the group to which she's moving. 4A loves her classroom teacher. 4A's SPED, who plugs into the lower group every day, "gets" 4A, SPED herself has a child on the spectrum and has a lot of experience with and respect for Dr. Steve. In this lower group, 4A will get 30 minutes of self selected reading (SSR) time, rather than the 10 minutes she was getting in her other group. She loves to read, and she's always motivated best when she gets to do more of what she feels like doing or likes to do. As her classroom teacher says, 4A loves to read; why should we ruin that? Maybe more SSR time and more fun in reading will make reading class less of a chore for her; theoretically, she may feel less pressured and more motivated. That would be a great thing.

(5) Nothing changed for 4A in terms of who she is and how we feel about her. She's still smart and amazing and a great kid. She's just going to spend more time with a teacher who really understands her and a method of instruction that better fits the way her brain works. Shouldn't we all be so lucky every day?

(6) Dr. Steve thinks this is the right thing to do. That, for us, really ends the entire conversation or debate.

Only time will tell, of course, if this was the right move. And who's to ever say, really, which action in one's childhood causes which result, right? For now, we know that we don't truly know what's best for her, so we very humbly and thankfully put our trust in those we've surrounded her with who actually DO know what she needs. Trusting is something we've learned to do well, so we easily do it again.

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