Friday, March 30, 2012

Special Needs Woes=Special Needs Wows!

As a parent of special needs children, it is really easy to slip into the poor me mindset. I have to work hard for everything for my children and there are really very few people in the world who "get" it. Those people who do understand have special needs children for their very own, making it an exclusive little club. It's easy to focus on what your children canNOT do and to compare them to other kids the same age...especially when that is exactly what all of the professionals in our life do with them.  But, when it comes down to it, I get to experience something that typical parents do not: the wows of the little things.

Having my typical daughter and my experience working in various settings with kids has made me realize that the average child does stuff pretty much on their own. They sit on their own, talk on their own, eat on their own... you can work with them to speed it up some, but really, they will still do it. How many typical kids don't eat or talk by the time that they are 5? It doesn't matter if they sat up a month late once they are doing it. With the assurance that these things will eventually happen, their parents will take things for granted.

With a special needs child, however, EVERY milestone that they hit is huge. I remember calling people when my boys were babies with tears in my eyes, shouting, "Andrew grabbed a rattle with both hands and brought it to his mouth!!!!" or  when they were 3 1/2, "Benjamin FINALLY ate solid food!" Yeah... people think I am a crazy insane mom who celebrates every little thing, and with the boys, they are RIGHT. And, I deserve to celebrate every little thing.  I also get to CRY at every little gain. I have worked and fought and taught and spent hours upon hours with them to get them to do things that other kids just do... and it's hard... but it's totally, completely, and utterly worth it.

When you ask how my kids are doing, don't expect a simple "great" because really, "great" cannot quantify all that is going on... neither can "same ol' same ol'." Expect a detailed explanation of the fine motor and social gains that my son has made that now allow him to point at a person or an object with one finger and how absolutely amazing he is by learning how to do this. And, like I said, most people don't understand.

I count myself as lucky that I get to be in this exclusive parenting group that does not miss these incredible things. We are cheerleaders. With that being said, I am going to go sit and secretly watch my boys argue with each other. Because in all actuality, it is something normal that they are doing that they never should have been able to.... and it is a new "gain" for Ben.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

You want to write what?

Wow! Two posts in one day. Must be some sort of record for me. THIS is worth posting about. I am so excited about this afternoon that I want to call everyone I know! Benjamin, for the first time in his life, wrote a sentence. Not only that, but he ASKED to do it and came up with the sentence all on his own. Here it is!!

Ben writing his sentence on his dry-erase board.

The sentence says, "Og is happy to hug me." Og is a character on one of his Leappad games. His original sentence was more like a paragraph, but once he got writing, he decided to shorten it to just this. I am so utterly proud of this kid! We made a big deal out of it, praised him like crazy, took pictures, texted them to everyone, showed Grandma and Papa... you name it. He was incredibly proud of himself.

Building Life Skills at Home Depot

Life skills are important for all children, but for children with special needs and Cerebral Palsy, they don't always come naturally. So, they have to be taught, taught again, refined, and then mastered.

Home Depot offers a children's program once a month on Saturdays that is free to the surrounding community. The children come, get an orange kids'-sized apron for their very own, and then build the kit for the day. They provide everything... hammers, screw-drivers, wood, Home Depot employees, work space, and most importantly, the assembly instructions!

Kate looks seriously at the instructions.
We have done these days a couple of times. What's even more special for the kids is that their "Papa" (or Grandfather) works at Home Depot, so they get to build these things with him. And, it is teaching the kids to follow the written instructions (or the adult's verbal instructions), use basic tools, and then see the finished project and take it with them. My kids have made helicopters, a caddy, a house piggy bank, and a race car. They enjoy the activities and it is fun to see them work on their projects.
Andy and Papa working together.

Check out your local Home Depot to see when they offer this program! It's a fun Saturday morning activity for the family and teaches children to use basic tools, a life skill that everyone needs to know how to do.

Ben hammering on his own.
Andy using a screwdriver on his own.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Andrew's Fine Motor Skills

I rarely post about Andrew since he is in school, but I am so darn proud of this kids' newfound abilities. His writing and drawing has really improved in the year and a half since we did HBOT therapy. The other morning, he decided that he wanted to draw on the dry-erase board. It is not common for him to actually ask to draw something, so I even let him use my best dry-erase markers to make his masterpiece. I always take pictures of the kids' drawings on the easel. That way, I have a record of some of their best drawings.

It's a carwash! There are rollers and sprayers, cars, and a truck with 1,000 wheels (he says he counted them to make sure :-)  ). 

Before last year's HBOT therapy, Andrew could not draw anything recognizable. His letters and numbers were all the size of a half sheet of paper. Now, he is attempting to draw his favorite things and his letters and numbers fit into small boxes on his math homework. He is making words and short sentences. He still has a long way to go to have good handwriting and it takes him a lot longer to write than his peers. However, he is also learning to use a word processor in school so that he can keep up 

These pictures show just how far Andrew's writing came from the start of our second round of HBOT. This picture is an EXCELLENT example of his writing in August, 2010, about a month before starting HBOT. Numbers and letters were all that big and words and sentences didn't ever happen.

This next picture is a sample of Andrew's writing in a letter written to Santa. Notice that the letters are much smaller and that he is beginning to put together letters in words and words into sentences. That is huge progress in just a few short months. This picture was taken at the beginning of December, 2010, not long after the end of our second round of HBOT.

And, this is a sample of Andrew's writing taken just a couple of months ago. He has continued to improve thanks to the hard work of his outstanding teachers. They push and encourage him to be the best that he can be. This was an assignment that I did with him one day that he had off of school, but I was incredibly proud of his writing on it.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Special Needs Writing Activities

Benjamin is continuing to make tremendous progress with his writing this year. His newest achievement is being able to write his numbers on his math work. He is so excited that he doesn't have to use stamps anymore. I still need to sit by him to cheer him on while writing with a pencil on non-handwriting activities, but I don't have to assist him hardly at all. Here is part of the writing regimen that has been so incredibly successful this year.

Finger Exercises/Wake-ups
  • We have a squishy ball that Ben loves to play with. The texture is kind of gooey, but there are harder, rubber balls and a light on the inside. He has to squish it over and over again as a finger wake-up. It gives him good sensory input as well.
  • Ben loves to play in a rice and beans bin. It is incredibly messy, but it helps to wake up his fingers when Ben is having a difficult time. The sensory input is great for getting him going some mornings.
  • We work on finger isolation exercises everyday. Benjamin has incredible difficulty isolating individual fingers. Over the summer, he finally was able to isolate his pointer fingers after working with his incredible tutor. So now, we are working on isolating all of his fingers.
  • We also sing a song that I remember from somewhere in my past. We put all ten fingers up and then sing, "Open, shut them, open, shut them, give a little clap clap clap." Ben thinks the song is silly and will play along with me. Little does he know, it is working his fingers, getting him to think about using those muscles in his hands, and then the clapping is providing input and making him bring his hands to the center of his body. 
  • Ben LOVES music and playing the piano. It takes quite a bit of finger strength to push down the keys to make sound. He prefers to only play with his thumbs (and I am amazed at what he can play with just his thumbs), but we have been working diligently on him trying to use other fingers. He now will regularly use three or more fingers on each hand to play chords. I am sure that the other exercises that we have done have helped with this, but I know that just the practice on the piano has helped him to gain strength in his fingers.
Writing Warm-ups
  • Every day, Benjamin is required to do "writing warmups." These are all dry-erase activities. I have laminated a sheet from Handwriting without Tears that has the same boxes that he uses in his book. On one side are some common lines that he will use for writing and also his name written on the bottom. On the other side are all of the letters and numbers. Since it is using a marker, it is easy for Benjamin to make the marks. It requires him to do the movements over and over again, giving him lots of practice. He can do it completely independently, which is great for his self-esteem and is incredibly motivating. His writing warmup sheet has quickly become the first thing that he wants to do when we start school in the morning. Check it out!

  • Other writing warmups that I use are easy connect-the-dots and easy mazes that I have collected in various inexpensive (Target dollar section or dollar store) books over the years. I simply put the sheets in clear plastic sleeves to make them dry erase and then have Ben complete them. The goal is for him to do some sort of handwriting activity everyday where he feels completely successful. I don't want him to feel discouraged with these warmups. I do correct his grip if I notice that it is incorrect, but these activities are meant to make him feel successful no matter how he does it.
Handwriting Without Tears--Letter Formation
  • Our main handwriting program is Handwriting Without Tears. The most popular part of this program in my house is by far the stamp and see screen. Benjamin and Kate both love to create the letters on the Magna-doodle type screen and then trace over them. Benjamin refuses to move on to writing his letters on paper until he can make one on this screen that looks the way it is supposed to look.
  • I have found out that Benjamin is a perfectionist and is easily frustrated by mistakes that he can't correct. That's why I think the dry erase has been so successful for him. If he isn't happy with how it looks, he simply wipes it off and does it again. Following this same thought, he doesn't like to write in his Handwriting Without Tears book until he knows that he won't make a mistake. So, I make a copy or two of the page with the letter we are working on. He practices for two days or so until he is happy with the way he has made the letters. Then, he will write them in his book. It takes the pressure off of him when I tell him that these sheets are just practice and that we can make more of them if he makes too many mistakes. 
  • On some letters, Ben is overwhelmed by the steps that it takes to make them. I have found that saying the steps aloud is incredibly helpful for him. For instance, a "B" is "big line down, frog jump up, little curve (don't move), little curve." We had to add the "don't move" in for a "B" because he was making it like a "P" and then putting another curve within the first curve. He was incredibly frustrated when he was repeating the steps to me and making a letter that didn't turn out like a "B." Really, when it comes down to it, you have to do what you have to do for that individual child. He is now making Bs all on his own and is proud that he can write his name in all caps. 
  • Kate loves to play with the Roll a Dough letters. It is basically playdoh and letter shape cards. You roll the playdoh and then place them on the cards to make them look like the letters. Ben will occasionally play with these, but does not use them regularly.
Other Tips/Helpful Tricks
  • For Benjamin's grip, we use a pencil grip called the Stetro Pencil Grip that helps to remind him how he is supposed to hold the pencil. We call it his "writing helper." His grip has changed tremendously since trying these grips. I don't even think that these are magical in reminding him where his fingers should be. I really think in his case that it provides the tactile input that he needs to know where he should be holding the pencil and is irritating to him if he tries to palm the pencil. The one downside to using this little contraption is that he can't hold a pencil correctly for long without it and he also can't use enough pressure on the pencil to make a mark without it. If we forget it, handwriting goes out the window and so does his confidence. 
  • On days where he is really having a difficult time with his grip (which are fewer and farther between), we start our handwriting with what I call a finger trap. I guess the correct name is a pencil grip writing claw, but after seeing the picture, you will understand why I call it a trap. Ben does not like this little contraption because he feels like he can't move his fingers. However, that is exactly why I like it. Usually after just a few minutes with this little thing on and he is ready to go back to his other pencil grip and has much better form.
  • I encourage Benjamin to do any writing, coloring, or painting anytime that he wants. We play with playdoh often and it is his own play time with it without the pressure of me dictating what he should be doing. We take Lego breaks for him to build with Legos. The more that I can get him to play with fine motor activities and hand strengthening activities, the better his writing will get. 
  • When Ben is starting to write and picks up a writing utensil, I fix his grip and then have him squeeze the pencil 5 times with the correct fingers. I once again think that this is just a tactile reminder for him. I am trying to get him thinking about which fingers he should be using. 
In summary, we have made TREMENDOUS progress with Benjamin's writing this year. This progress alone is enough to make me see that we made the correct decision to homeschool him. He needs intense training in certain areas in order for him to reach his full potential and writing was a big one for him. I am overwhelmed with emotion every time that Benjamin finishes a page of writing on his own and comes up to me with his handwriting book yelling, "Mommy! I did it! I made an 'M!'"

Here is a picture of Ben working on his handwriting warmups. I seriously want to print and frame this picture. What is amazing is that I snuck up on him for this picture. He was working by himself without prodding, pleading, asking, frustration on either of our part, tears or yes, bribery. His grip (although not perfect) is decent even without his writing helper. The lines are not perfect, but he is making them himself. Nobody is doing hand over hand with him and nobody is sitting down next to him to make sure he stays on task. This, right here, is progress. 

Animal Sorts

Another awesome score from Smart Start Resource Center is a hands-on "animal homes" sorting center from Lakeshore. Benjamin has been loving this one and has been playing with it on his own ever since we did the activity as part of our science unit.

We have been studying animals the past couple of months and have been focusing mainly on one animal at a time and incorporating other important animal concepts into the units. Since we are now studying penguins, I thought that it would be a great time to teach Benjamin to sort based on where the animals live and also teach about animal camouflage. This activity was perfect for those concepts!

This activity kit has small plastic animals and 4 round boards to represent grasslands, polar regions, ocean, and forest. On one side there are pictures of the animals that belong to each group. The other side has the name of the region and spaces for the animals, but no pictures or clues. Since this was our learning day, we used the pictures. I plan on using the other side for comprehension at a later date. 

Both Ben and Kate had a fun time matching up the plastic animals to their pictures. Once they completed that, I worked with them to notice similarities between the colors of the animals and the homes in which they live. The kids noticed right off that the animals from the polar regions are white. It took a little prodding, but Benjamin was able to tell me that the color white would help them hide since there is a lot of snow and ice in the polar regions. Once we made those connections and talked about why penguins are dark on their backs and white on their fronts, we were able to apply these camouflage ideas to animals in the grassland, ocean and forest. In fact, Benjamin was able to realize and tell me that animals in the forest are darker in color because there isn't a lot of light in the forest. I am so proud :-)

Ben has been asking to play with the animals a lot. He has been using them with his dinosaurs to have the carnivores eat all of the animals and has been setting up pretend play scenes with them a lot. He also enjoys sorting them again and again into the appropriate areas. 

I was originally going to create this activity on my own by writing the name of different regions on a sheet of white paper and then have pictures of different animals for us to sort through. It is the same concept, but more friendly for those of you who don't have access to a resource center such as the one we have here in our county. 

Monday, March 12, 2012


Our original penguin unit ended up turning into an elephant unit courtesy of Benjamin. So, after going to the library, we decided that we would finally learn about penguins. Benjamin was very excited to get started.

Today's activity was loads of fun! I drew pictures of different penguins (I am NOT an artist) on a roll of paper and made them the actual height of the penguins. I then had Ben measure each penguin and decide which one was which. I had three penguins and three post-it notes with penguin names on them. Before the activity, we looked at a chart in our penguin book on the different types of penguins and what their average heights were. Ben simply measured and then matched the post-it to the picture. We then talked about which penguin was the tallest, which one was taller/shorter than the other and found out if the penguins were taller than the kids. Kate thought it was neat that the Emperor penguin was just about as big as she is.


Kate's the same size (almost)!

Ben is taller!

My lovely penguins. Art is NOT my thing...