Category Archives: parenting

The Secret to Teaching Math

Pkin doesn’t like math. Like, really doesn’t like math. Like, “I think math is my enemy and I can’t imagine anything worse in the world” doesn’t like math. And not without reason. She has struggled in math since at least first grade. Some parts of math (particularly those focused on visual skills such geometry and symmetry) she picks up fairly quickly. Other parts (place value, money, time, double-digit addition and subtraction, multiplication and division more generally) are hard. Really hard. She can seem to finally get it one day and the next day it’s as if she’s never even heard of the concepts before. It frustrates her and it bewilders us and her teachers. And we all keep plugging on hoping that one day we’ll find the key — even though every lock has a different key and there are who knows how many locks.

So when we find a little victory, we celebrate it. Tonight was one of those nights.

DH currently has Pkin begging to know what an isosceles triangle is. He told her it was something she couldn’t talk about in school and that she isn’t old enough to discuss it (thus she assumed it was highly inappropriate — and wanted to know all about it).

Ya’ gotta’ do whatever works!


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Our House as Bath & Body Works Location

One of the hallmarks of autism is obsessive interests. Pkin has a few areas where this shows up. She also perseverates a bit (another hallmark) about completing “collections.” A collection can be pretty much any grouping of similar things — stuffed animals, toys, books…and Bath & Body Works products. She loves them. All of them. She would buy every last thing in their store if she could (except maybe candles — she’s afraid of candles ever since a birthday candle in preschool set off the fire alarm. We’re not even allowed to use them. Not sure what would happen if the power went out and we actually had to choose between using a candle and not seeing).

It started with an interest in the small hand sanitizers because her third grade teacher (her favorite) used them in class and Pkin loved the smell. She has always been a sensory seeker when it came to smells, so this was no surprise. That interest then expanded to shower gels and lotions and lip glosses and perfumes and sparkly body sprays and even sparklier body mousses.

DH and I installed another shelf this weekend so Pkin could put a few more pieces of her Bath & Body Works “collection” on display (and no, this is still not all of it). No one ever need worry about smelling bad at our house.


Bath & Body Works


We still need another shelf (or two or three — or a small room) to fit everything. And as soon as we had something that would fit it all, she would surely buy more.

I’m sure some people would say we should put a stop to this — tell her she can’t buy more (at least not until more of it is used) and invoke the good ole standby to “put our foot down.” We see it differently. When you have a child who is interested in a very few and rather narrow group of things, sometimes the best thing a parent can do is help them explore those interests and, otherwise, get out of the way.

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Filed under Autism, children, parenting

Pkin in Picasso

Pkin loves drawing. If she had her way, she would likely draw for 16 hours a day (with the remaining 8 being filled with eating sushi/noodles and sleeping). She sometimes perseverates on particular drawings (often hairstyles, sometimes eyes, occasionally clothes). And we, of course, encourage and support her in all of this. We take her to a manga drawing class every week (her favorite style), buy her sketchbooks and pencils and whatever else strikes her fancy. We’ve recently also been seeking to push her outside her comfort zone a bit.

We found a private art teacher who lives nearby (he teaches at an elementary school in our school district and his wife is a special ed teacher) who is working with her on using other media and drawing/painting/etc. in other styles. So far, she isn’t complaining about going and is actually producing some interesting pieces. A sampling of these is below:


The first creation under Mr. L's guidance. He wanted to see what she could do first and then worked with her on using watercolors for a background.

The first creation under Mr. L’s guidance. He wanted to see what she could do first and then worked with her on using watercolors for a background.


A self-portrait drawn in the style of Picasso

A self-portrait drawn in the style of Picasso

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Filed under Autism, parenting, randomness, Uncategorized

Mama Camp: Day 1 — Because Nothing Matters More

So, I’ll admit that the last couple weeks have been a bit bonkers. I ended up subbing full-time for the last week and a half of school as one of the teachers had her baby a bit earlier than expected. As a result, the CSA Challenge and my planning for summer camp got slightly side tracked. Add to that my ill-advised decision to schedule the install for the new flooring on our stairs for the day after school and…well…it didn’t quite work. And then I got an interview for an actual, on-purpose full-time job (at the same school) suddenly.

So, yeah, a bit bonkers.

I’ll be catching you all up on the CSA Challenge once I get this week’s box tomorrow. It has been some success, some not so much (but I guess it wouldn’t be a challenge if it was easy).

In the meantime, today marked the beginning of Mama Camp. We’ve tried this the past couple summers with varying degrees of success — mostly because of fibro flares and other illnesses, but also because I’m really, really good at planning and not always as good at follow through (thus the PhD taking 10 years). I decided that this year would be less plan, plan, plan and more figure out what works for us each day, go with that, and be satisfied with what we accomplish.

It also helps knowing that Pkin will be working with a wonderful tutor this summer as well. That means it’s not all on me. I can be a good additional element, but I’m not the whole enchilada — and that is great because, while I know a lot, I still have a lot to learn.

Since today was day one, I decided we’d keep it fairly low key with a bit of reading comprehension (something where she can do well, but sometimes really resists), spelling (which she is pretty good at), and some math review (which she hates with a burning intensity equivalent to several small suns). We’re also doing some less directly academic, but likely far more important work from two workbooks: one on helping kids learn about and deal with their Tourette syndrome and the other helping kids learn social skills and make friends (something Pkin has said she would like help with on more than one occasion this year).

The subject specific pieces went pretty well — a bit of frustration, which I expected. I also got to try my hand a bit at spontaneously creating a teaching tool (I’m sure it has an actual name that I just haven’t learned yet). Pkin has a tendency to want to rush through work she doesn’t like (aka math). She also has a tendency to want to identify any recurrent patterns and move through those parts before tackling everything else. In this case, we were working with turning expanded number forms into the actual numbers and she wanted to put all the commas on the answer lines before staring to work with the numbers themselves.

Now, if all that happened was she wanted to put in the commas, that wouldn’t be that big a deal. But she often goes further than that. Today, for example, she wanted to write in all the numbers in the ten thousands place first and then go back to do the others. What she didn’t realize (and this is part of why we are reviewing in the first place) was that doing that means she needed to only write the first number of the expanded form in that spot, not the zero next to it because that wouldn’t necessarily be a zero once she looked at the number on the thousands spot. I tried explaining that to her verbally, but she insisted her way would work. I tried to stop show her how to look at only one line at a time, but she insisted her way would work. The only way I (we, as DH joined in on this part) got her to stop was by literally taking away her pencil so she couldn’t write anymore while I worked out a way to help her. I asked DH for a piece of construction paper and some scissors (which, of course, took us a bit to find as I haven’t yet organized all the learning materials — see chaos of the last couple weeks above). Once I had what I needed, I cut a little window out of the construction paper just big enough for her to see exactly one line of the full expanded number and its answer. This tool in place, she moved through the rest of the questions without any problems. I suspect I will be making a good many more devices of this sort as we continue with Mama Camp.

I may have, temporarily, felt like I was all that (I admit it), but it wasn’t long before I realized that Mama Camp won’t all be bits of review and moments of teacherly brilliance ;).

After we had finished most of the subject-related items, Pkin decided she wanted to work on the Let’s Be Friends workbook. As might be expected, it starts with a bit of self-exploration — a handy self-portrait and a bit of reflection. Though I wasn’t allowed to look as she was working (this is pretty common for her work. That we were allowed to look at it at all is what is a bit rare. Usually if we can’t see it while it’s happening, we can’t see it once it’s done). Despite her willingness and desire to spend hours and hours drawing her manga creations, she zipped through her picture rather quickly. Then came the question and equally quick answer to the first question about her picture.

Mama Camp Day 1

For those who don’t read Pkin, her answer to the question “What does your picture say about you?” is just one word: “Weird.”

When I asked her if she could explain what she meant, she said only, “I feel weird.” When I asked if she meant that in a good way, a bad way, or something else, all she said was, “Bad.”

I tried to get her to say more about this, to think about other things she thinks it says about her or that she thinks about herself, she couldn’t. This was it. Weird. Not unique, fun, funky weird. Freak, bizarre, unlikable weird. It’s a word we know she has heard people in school call her off and on throughout this year. It’s a word we specifically mentioned to her teacher on several occasions. It’s a word we have talked to her about and tried to work through for most of fourth grade.

And yet it remains. It sticks in her mind and is the main — the only — way she can find to describe herself.

This is something I can’t fix with a bit of construction paper and a pair of scissors. This is going to take a lot more work and a lot more time. This, in my view, is the most important thing we’ll be tackling with Mama Camp. I don’t know if it will actually make a difference in the end. I hope it does, but I honestly don’t know. I do know that we absolutely have to try.

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Filed under children, CSA Challenge, education, Mama Camp, parenting

This Is My Phone on Tourette’s

This month has been a bit rough. I’ve been dealing with a couple fibro flares, Pkin’s anxiety has been on overload, and DH has been neck deep in end-of-semester chaos. We had family visiting, I had my official graduation activities for my PhD and the resulting celebratory party, DH and I marked our 20th anniversary, Pkin had her first ever strings concert and her first ever 5K, I subbed numerous times, DH dealt with a knee issue, we tried to get some new flooring put in part of our house (long story…still waiting), DH headed to Chicago for a conference, and just these last couple weeks — SOLs.

For those people not in the know, SOLs are the wonderful standardized tests all public school students here have to take from 3rd grade until they graduate from high school. It stands for Standards of Learning, though the other meaning is more accurate in my view (and you just have to wonder what group of idiotic bureaucrats didn’t notice that when they decided what to name it).

Pkin doesn’t seem to put as much pressure on herself about these tests as many of her classmates do — likely because DH and I have made it clear that we think they are stupid, useless, and entirely counter to any idea of meaningful education. We’ve told her we just ask her to do her best and are completely fine with whatever happens as a result.

And still — she’s been anxious about them. She doesn’t like tests and doesn’t like taking them. She also doesn’t like that we changed how she was taking the tests a bit this year. In the past, when she’s taken standardized tests of pretty much any sort, she’s been pulled to take them with a smaller group of students rather than her whole class. This is because her IEP sets forth different requirements for teachers reading directions, questions, etc. than would happen in gen pop.

This year is her first year taking these tests with her Tourette syndrome. For the other tests earlier this year (eCart, etc.), she did them in this smaller group. As the SOLs neared, however, her special ed teacher and I thought it might be best to try doing them on her own with a teacher. Her special ed teacher had noticed that Pkin was very aware of how her tics might affect others in a quiet testing room (and, likely, how much harder it would be for them to ignore it given the lack of other noise in the room). She thought that Pkin was putting so much effort into trying to control her tics that she wasn’t able to concentrate fully on the tests as a result. This would, of course, be exacerbated by the increased anxiety around the testing since anxiety itself often increases them.

So, taking the tests by herself seemed like a good solution. She would be on her own with an adult she knew (or at least was fairly familiar with) and who knew her and, therefore, she wouldn’t have to worry about holding in her tics. She could just tic away and take her test. Unfortunately, Pkin did not like the idea. She didn’t want to be alone (meaning the only kid in the room). She didn’t want to take tests with people she wasn’t as comfortable with. Mainly, she didn’t want to take the test without her special ed teacher (who is, basically, the main reason we’re making it through this school year in one piece mostly and haven’t pulled her for homeschooling).

We haven’t yet gotten the scores, so don’t know if it actually helped in the test taking. I did get a chance to talk with the teacher who was with her for her first two tests (and who had been her special ed teacher and/or supervisor for a couple years before). The first day she didn’t have many tics (it was also the History test, which is a subject she is more comfortable with even though she hates that they aren’t studying more about world history and culture). The second day, she had a bunch (the reading SOL). We don’t know if it is because of the subject (which she generally isn’t very stressed about) or because we had talked with her about how it was totally OK to let her tics out. I don’t know what happened during the tests this week (math — what she refers to as her nemesis).

All this is to say — there’s been a lot of stress and anxiety. And, as a result, we’ve also been seeing a lot more tics (as I write this, there is an almost constant chatter coming from Pkin’s corner of the room — a combination of echolalia and random whoops and shouts).

I guess, then, it shouldn’t be a surprise that a tic we’ve seen fairly often this year (biting — not of people, but of things) popped out again today. We’d had a batch of it earlier this month resulting in both pairs of her glasses being sent in for new lenses because she chewed on them and scratched the lenses so badly they were useless. (We didn’t realize that the first one was the result of biting until she told us the second one was and the company wrote to say the same).

We’d talked with her about other things she could bite on (chewies, pencils, this fabulous vibrating strawberry we happened to find when visiting family for the winter holidays, etc.), the importance of not biting certain things (things made of glass or other breakable substances, things that are expensive), etc. and hadn’t seen it very much since, so thought we were in good shape.

And then she bit my phone. She had asked me if she could play with it (she has games spread around pretty much every electronic device we own). Apparently, I handed it to her too quickly, it surprised her, stressed her out, and she needed to bite. Bye, bye phone screen.

Phone bite

Luckily, it doesn’t appear that she swallowed any of it and didn’t get cut. She felt awful about it (as she always does when one of her tics causes damage — whether to the phone or her glasses or the numerous books she’s torn or scrunched or the toys she’s pulled bits off of or…). It’s moments like these that help us to really understand what she means when she says, “I don’t mind having Autism, but sometimes I really wish I didn’t have Tourette’s.”

It makes us so sad to hear her say this, but we also understand where she’s coming from. We try to help her accept who she is and all that that means and do everything we can to make sure she knows we love her no matter what. But when she unintentionally destroys a new toy because her twitchies (that’s what she calls them) needed to pull off its tail or tears a page out of her newest manga because her hand needed to grab it, it’s kind of hard for her to like herself.

So I sew stuffed animals and we tape pages and buy her a chewable necklace and bracelet. We hug her (kisses aren’t allowed — that’s her Autism) and love her and try to help her love herself. And we keep on working on it.

Sometimes, that’s just all you can do…

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Filed under Autism, parenting, Tourette Syndrome

Reentering the Real World (or Maybe a Better One)

Today, my first day post-21DSD, I did as I promised and added honey. And I’ll admit it — it tasted really good. I don’t know yet how it is (or isn’t) affecting me. I can say there weren’t any immediately noticeable impacts. I didn’t become instantly irate. My stomach didn’t run screaming for the hills. I’m not all angry or weepy or whatever. I did get the very beginnings of a headache this afternoon, but can’t yet say if that is the honey or the PMS or some stress or the weather or the fact that I wore a teal shirt today or…

So, I’ll keep observing and noticing and listening and see what I learn. I am nothing if not a person perpetually trying to learn more (thus I finish a PhD this semester and start a new Master’s degree in the fall…I am a professional student, except that I don’t actually get paid to do it).

Coincidentally, a friend of mine at Granola Funk Mama posted today about learning in a way that is really connecting with me. She recently attended a radical unschooling conference and has come back having learned some interesting things about herself, her kids, and learning in general. Many of these ideas are not that removed from the pedagogy of the college program where I taught for 7 years. It is in a formal educational institution, so certainly differs in some important ways, but a lot of what I and my fellow teachers there did was to sort of get out of the way of the students’ learning and provide them with the support to explore and discover. But at the end of it, there were assessments (though not usually tests) and there were grades and I still determined if they had actually learned and grown. I’m not sure I am entirely opposed to that though. I always told them I wasn’t the expert. I wasn’t the be-all and end-all of knowledge on any subject. I just happened to be a little more experienced at learning than they were and was there to help guide them in their discoveries.

That is how I’ve seen myself as a parent as well. I’ll admit that DH and I are fairly radical and definitely not mainstream. Many people would probably think we are pretty lousy parents. I mean, we teach Sofia that there are no such things as “bad” words, just words that are more or less societally appropriate in given contexts. And then we help her understand those contexts. We also teach her that “good” and “evil” are not useful descriptions. They don’t help us learn anything and usually serve only to boil down highly complex concepts into more easily digestable chunks to those who aren’t willing or able to handle more (thus we get strange looks from a busload of people when our then 8-year old child pops up over the back of the seat in front of us and asks, rather loudly, why Afghanistan has a troubled past. Or maybe the looks were because we then began to actually answer the question and not in simple terms…)

Given all this, I think it’s safe to say that if we were homeschooling, we would be unschooling. But we aren’t doing the former (at least not on a full-time basis. We definitely supplement, which is why our daughter knows that Rosa Parks wasn’t just a tired seamstress who got fed up one day) and Pkin is highly opposed to the idea. In part I suspect that is because it is different and, as she herself will say, she’s “not a fan of change.” In part, though, it’s because she has developed some really great relationships with some people at her school — especially a couple key teachers from last year and this. She looks forward to seeing them. She asks about them. She asks for them when she needs help. She trusts them. And for a child on the spectrum, that is huge! And we feel we need to honor that.

But that doesn’t mean I’m not interested in learning more about how we can incorporate unschooling ideas into the supplementing and just plain living of our lives. Considering I’ll soon be returning to school to become a licensed special education teacher, I’m also interested in pondering how I might bring that to my teaching and my students in that formal school setting. I know there are pressures and requirements and expectations and I firmly believe that a lot of that keeps good teachers from doing their best teaching. Perhaps it’s the perpetual optimist in me (at least, in the last couple years) that thinks maybe that isn’t how it has to be.

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Filed under 21 DSD, education, food, parenting

Mama Camp Farm Trip: Reprise

We’ve gotten back into the Mama Camp swing of things now that we’ve recovered from the plague, so it was back to the farm for our CSA. Remembering our lesson learned last week, Pkin wore leggings so as to avoid an unwanted weed contact with her bare legs. Of course, we were in different fields this week, so they may not have actually been necessary (but just in case).

It was, thankfully, a gorgeous day — mid 70s and sunny with a gentle breeze. And did I mention sunny. Yeah — this week’s lesson: wear a hat or sunscreen (or both). Of course, I already knew that…

Pkin was super engaged and involved this week. She was even OK with needing to walk a bit more than usual. We started by picking purple plums. OK, to be more accurate, she stood where she had a full view of the tree and sent me on missions to retrieve the particularly ripe ones she spotted. I think she may have ventured in a foot or two and grabbed one at one point. Maybe.

As we walked back to the farm store, we saw that the hayride to the blueberry field was leaving about 5 minutes early. As might be expected, this stressed Pkin out. She repeatedly demanded that I explain why he (the driver) would leave early. After several different variations on explanations, I hit on the one that worked: Maybe his watch was set a few minutes ahead of my phone. Can’t argue with that — technology can be that way (and that also meant that neither we nor the driver was at fault. Blame is a really big deal right now and whoever is to blame gets to hear about it for a good while. Lucky for Mr. Farmer I had his back!)

After a good bit of wandering around the blueberry fields to find ripe ones (and, eventually, getting some of those into our container rather than into Pkin), we hopped the hayride back to the farm store and headed up the hill for black raspberries. Now, we’ve walked down the hill after picking many times, but haven’t walked up before. Pkin had to make very certain that it was entirely OK for us to do this. She is not a rebel. Once she was sure, then she needed to whine about the walk a bit. I offered to drive up instead, but she was quite confident that this was not acceptable behavior and, as I said, she is not a rebel. We walked and there was no complaining.

For anyone who has never had black raspberries, trust me when I say to you that if 1 in every 3 actually gets into a container rather than a mouth, you are achieving great odds. We were no exception. Pkin adores black raspberries. When we first found the farm a couple years ago, it was because a friend posted on Facebook that she was going to go pick some. I had never heard of them and assumed, wrongly, that it was actually just some East coast way of saying “blackberries.” It isn’t. They are black raspberries. And they are awesome.

The first time we picked a few years back, DH and I kept reminding Pkin that she needed to put some into the bucket. She looked at us, cocked her hip, pointed at her mouth, and said, “This IS my bucket.” She may have gotten older since then, but that just means her bucket is bigger. The evidence is clear below (and yes, that is black raspberry juice on her forehead).


We topped off all the picking with a trip to the sluice and a bit of panning for gems (the farm store sells bags of dirt stocked with gems, emeralds, or fossils). This is, besides eating things she’s picking, Pkin’s favorite activity at the farm. We have several little bags full of colorful stones strewn about the house. Pkin suggested we make jewelry out of them. I have not yet actually done that, but it seems like a good plan for a future Mama Camp project (especially if I can accidentally get her to learn a bit more about geology as a result). Look for wire-wrapped jewelry coming to an arts market (or website or Etsy store) near you!

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Filed under children, education, Mama Camp, parenting