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Posts Tagged ‘unstoppable Nik’

On our way to school yesterday—

NIK: One, two.
ME: I don’t understand; can you use your words to tell me more?
NIK: I.want.candy.one.two.please.
ME: Thank you! Here you go.

I hand Nik two tic tac candies.

It’s a game we play each morning. It started years ago as a way of encouraging counting skills. Clearly, we are beyond that now and we have modified it over time. Now, I use this same exchange to work on language skills and, sometimes, concepts.

NIK: Three, four.
ME: I understand, but you just had two. You need to wait.
NIK: Three, four, please.
ME: Tell you what, buddy, you may have three and four after we pass the fire station.

As I hear the words come from my mouth, it occurs to me—I don’t know if Nik really understands. We don’t exactly narrate our daily travels anymore and we don’t know any firefighters. Other than a character in a story, I’m not sure Nik’s really been exposed to the idea of a fire station. I mean, we drive past the large brick edifice multiple times a day—on the way to school, on the way home, when we go to the store, the park, the pool.  It is a landmark known to everyone because of both its importance and its location. We take it for granted as simply another part of the scenery.

NIK: Three, four. Now, please, Mama.
ME: No, sweetie. You need to wait until we get to the fire station. Do you know where that is?

I see Nik sign “yes” in the mirror, but I’m not convinced he really knows.

As we approach the intersection, the light turns red; I ask Nik to point to the fire station. He points, vaguely, to the right side of the car; the fire station is on the left. Realizing he doesn’t know what I’m talking about, my heart lurches a little.

In that instant, it becomes vitally important to me that my son understands what the fire house is and where it is— as if it’s a confirmation that he does, indeed, have things in common with his typical peers. After all, all boys love fire houses and fire engines, right? I sigh, wistfully, and remind myself that it’s okay if he doesn’t. Maybe.

ME: (clearly refusing to give up as I point to the fire house on the opposite corner) Nik, look. That’s the fire station. It’s the house where the fire engines live. Can you see it, buddy?
NIK: Fire engine.house. Fire engine house. Inside.
ME: Oh, sweetie, we can’t go inside. We have to go to school.

The light changes and we begin to drive. I tell myself it’s a start; we can keep working on it.

As we drive past the fire station, I hear some rapid vocalizations from Nik followed by a flurry of beeps from his device.

NIK: Fire engine. Sit. Fire engine. Sit.Later.
ME: Can you use a sentence so I understand what you mean, sweetie?
NIK:  I.want.sit.fire.engine. Today. I want sit fire engine today, please, Mama.

And that, my friends, is how it started to rain inside my car, forcing this mama to drive to school without being able to see a thing.  It is also why I am now on a mission to take my boy to the fire station as soon as possible.

Nik during one of his many hospital stays. This was his first birthday.

Nik during one of his many hospital stays. This was his first birthday.

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The natural patterns and rhythms of verbal communication do not come naturally to Nik. Despite the fact that he’s had his speech device for three-plus years now, he still struggles with parts of speech and being able to put words together in a way which is understandable to “outsiders.” It’s just a part of how his brain is wired. Much of Nik’s default method of communication is “telegraphic,” meaning that he will use one word for multiple meanings and that meaning is figured out by the listener who must either be psychic or must elicit more information to determine the context in which Nik means them.

For example, Nik may say “Park Daddy” to mean any of the following:

I want to go to the park with Daddy when he gets home from work.

I went to the park with Daddy this morning.

Will Daddy take me to the park?

I like going to the park with Daddy.

In speech therapy, Nik is working on using “action words” to go with the things he labels. For example, when he says “Park Daddy,” Ms. K will ask what actions he can do at the park– swing, climb, etc. They work on pairing nouns with verbs and reinforcing structure and the relationship between them. It’s a painstaking process which needs to be supported consistently– not just in his twice weekly sessions with Ms. K.

Nik loves to chatter to me as we drive along to the store after school or on the weekends. I try to encourage and coach his language use all the time. Lately, though, I can tell that Nik finds it annoying. I can’t say I blame him; who likes to be grilled all the time, right? Sometimes, he flat-out refuses to participate and changes the subject to avoid the work. Others? He plays me like a fiddle and I don’t even realize it until it’s too late!

* * * * * * * * * *
On the way home from the store yesterday, we shared a small bag of chips. As we drove along, I doled out chips every time Nik asked “more chips.”
“Nik, what actions can we do with chips?”
We’ve done this exercise often enough so I knew, from the silence in the back seat, that he was processing the fact that chips are food and you can eat, bite, or chew food.  Uncertain if I would need to prompt him with possible answers, I asked again.

“Nik, what is an action we can do with chips?”

I heard the quiet beep of Nik activating the screen on his device to answer.

“H-O-L-D bag.”

Well played, son. Well played.

* * * * * * * * * *
I promised Nik we would go to McDonald’s after his therapy this morning. He was extremely excited.  We don’t dine there with any remote degree of regularity; I try to save it for special times (or travel emergencies) and he loves going inside to eat.   On the way to see Ms. K, Nik and I were discussing what he would have for breakfast. He suddenly got stuck in a loop and began to perseverate on eggs.

“Eggs, eggs, eggs, eggs…”

Doing my best to help him break out of it, I tried to expand the language. “Nik, what can you DO with eggs?” I asked.

“Eggs, eggs, eggs, eggs…”

“Nik, there are lots of things we can do with eggs, right? Eggs are food and we can…” I began to sign eat, bite and chew as possible clues for him.

“Eat, eat, eat”  he replied from the back seat.

“Very good! That’s right. We can eat,” I signed. “Or we can Buh…” as I signed the word bite and made the sound of the letter B.

“Eat, B-”

I could tell he was about to spell it out and I started to nod in approval.

“…A-C-O-N. Eat bacon. Eat bacon.”

Yep, I’d say he’s got the important stuff down pat.

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Sitting at the breakfast table with my family… Just letting that sink in a bit…

Watching as Nik manages his bowl of cereal and banana, his scrambled egg and sausage, and a small glass of almond milk (hello, bottomless pit and hollow legs!). So very typical and yet…not. It occurs to me that, once I’ve prepared his food, the only assistance he needs lately is an occasional admonition to use his napkin or to slow down. To take a break from his methodical shoveling of everything into his mouth until it is overflowing.

I look across the table and watch my husband watching our son. He catches my eye and we smile. “You catching all this?” I ask with a lump in my throat. His only answer is a giant smile which transforms his face into pure joy.

So many years we worked with Nik to just be able to sit in a chair without falling over, to hold a utensil , to lift a cup. So many years we worked with professionals, like our beloved Ms. Michelle, to help him learn to tolerate textures, to initiate a swallow, to chew. Teaching him how to drink from a straw, to suck, swallow and breathe. The things which come naturally to babies but not to our child who spent too long on a ventilator and too long with tubes in his nose and mouth. All the years we wondered and worried, “Will he ever…”

The answer sits at our table in his very own chair with is very own place mat, dishes and utensils. It all looks so…normal.

It looks an awful lot like a resounding “YES!”

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So, this happened recently:

*ring, ring*
Me: Hello?
Caller: Hi, Mrs. Andersen, it’s Ms. G (the SLP from school).
Me: Hey, what’s up?
Ms. G: I’ve been working with Nik this morning and he’s been doing such a great job using his verbs! He said “Call Mama” so I thought I’d reinforce his excellent communication with a special treat. Hold on, I’ll put you on speaker.
Me: (possibly a bit squeaky from the sudden lump in my throat). Hi, baby! Are you having a good day?
Nik: Hi, Mama. Swim.
Me: Did you swim today?
Nik: Swim all done.
Me: I know, sweetie. Who did you swim with?
Nik: Swim Mr. Mike. All done. Walk. Goodbye.

With that, he hung up Ms. G’s cell phone.

And then my heart exploded and my face leaked everywhere.

“I just called to say I love you. I just called to say how much I care. I just called to say I love you and I mean it from the bottom if my heart.”
~ Stevie Wonder, “I just called to say I love you”

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Doing the Write Thing

A milestone many, many years in the making. It’s still a work in progress (especially the letter k), but it’s finally happening!

My boy is so proud of himself, so happy when he writes his name. It’s his new favorite thing to do and he does it everywhere — with his fingertip on the side of the bathtub at night, on the playroom walls, tracing his name on the glass of the storm door as we wait for the bus. When he thinks I’m not listening, I can hear him softly trying to sound out the letters one by one. “Mmmmm, ihhhhhh, kuh.” (He cannot articulate the sound of many letters, including N.)

Waiting for the bus this morning:

“What does that say, sweetie? What does it spell?”
His nimble fingers fly to his device to answer — name.

He knows it is his.

“That’s right, love, it’s your name. Can you say your name?”  Knowing full well he cannot articulate the actual sounds into one fluid word, I have no expectation of a response, but he tries; he always tries.

Today, however, he voices an unexpected and enthusiastic “Guh!

Startled, I smile widely and feel the sting of tears in my eyes.  He knows he has surprised me and his face splits into an infectious grin as he claps with glee at his cleverness.

My boy is nine. I don’t expect that he will ever use his laborious manual writing for more than signing his name, but I am so incredibly proud of his efforts and his perseverance; both are –in spite of the continuing state of flux of his health and his daily challenges– such constant facets of my amazing child.

The only things more constant are the love and pride I have for him.

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Today, Wednesday, March 6, people around the world will unite their communities to Spread the Word to End the Word®, as supporters participate in the 5th annual ‘Spread the Word to End the Word’ awareness day, aimed at ending the hurtful use of… the R-word (“retard(ed)”) negatively impacting people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD). Language affects attitudes. Attitudes impact actions. Special Olympics and Best Buddies International encourage people all over the world to pledge now to use respectful language at www.R-word.org and build communities of respect and inclusion for all people.  I hope you will add your voice in support of these efforts. Your life may not be graced by a loved one with an intellectual disability, but I am sure you know someone whose life is touched on a daily basis. The next time you hear someone using the term as a slur, please speak up. For your friends, your loved ones… for my child.

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Nine? How did that happen? In the blink of an eye you went from my fragile little micro-preemie –fighting for your life over and over again, to my funny, engaging, affectionate monkey!

We still have so many miles to go in this journey of ours together, so many things to learn and so much teaching to do in the world around us. But the one thing I hope you will always, always know is how very much you are loved. How very much you are cherished and respected. And how none of that is affected one iota by the things you can or cannot do in this life.

Happy Birthday, baby. You are my life, my soul, my heartbeat. You take my breath away every single day. You fill me with pride and wonder, perspective and faith. Though our road together has been so very challenging from even before your birth, I wouldn’t change a single bit of it if it meant you were any different than you are today.

I love you so very, very much.

A day without you

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Ok, so I know today is the whole Wordless Wednesday thing and I could skate by without a post and just slap up a cute picture of my kid and be done with it. But I can’t because, in this case, the picture is just a small part of the story. And this story is too good not to tell.

We’ve been going through a few bumpy stretches around here as we work to find a new equilibrium. Between Niksdad working nights now and getting less time with Nik, the wonky school schedule, the “super storm,” the broken speech devices (it’s fixed now!), the belly troubles, the ear infections and the early triennial evaluation of every aspect of Nik’s needs and services…yeah, bumpy. When we get into a challenging run of days, it’s easy to forget to look for the good stuff.

Like this:

He’s a great date!

So, what’s so special about a picture of my uber-cute son sipping on a beverage at our local Starbuck’s? The fact that he asked to do it.

Our pediatrician’s office is near a Starbucks with a drive-thru window. Whenever we go to the pediatrician, as we did yesterday for yet another raging ear infection, we stop at the drive-thru for Nik’s favorite treat: lemon cake. Nik only ever gets it after seeing the doctor. I don’t even recall how we started it, but it’s become a part of the ritual, part of the litany he recites endlessly as I drive with his speech device. “Doctor’s office first, lemon cake next!”

Over time, we’ve progressed from sharing a slice between us to Nik hogging it all to himself wanting a whole piece. I usually drive and sing and hand back a bit of cake here and there as we head home on the highway. It’s not exactly the neatest way to do it, but it’s always been such a hassle to try to wrangle Nik in public places with lots of things for busy hands to get into while Mama pays for stuff. In short, it’s been a sanity-saving measure for me.

As we passed the Starbucks on our way to the doctor’s office, Nik kept repeating the word inside on his device. “Yes, baby, we’re inside the car.” “Yes, Nik, we’ll be inside the doctor’s office soon.” I didn’t really understand what he wanted but was following the pattern of AAC use which is that you acknowledge every utterance so as to encourage continued communication. It’s become so ingrained that there are days I have to catch myself from doing this to my husband as he speaks!

I assume that I have interpreted Nik’s communication correctly because I didn’t hear it again. Until  I am about to turn into the drive-thru lane. From the backseat of the car, I hear it…

Inside. Inside, please. Inside, Mama. Inside. Want sit inside.

My boy knows what he wants and can tell me. My miracle child, who was once able to communicate only  through self-injury and tears, can make himself understood without endless prompting or cajoling! The magnitude of this milestone, years in the making, does not escape me. As I pull into a parking space, I am rewarded by the sound of laughter as Nik claps his hands in delight. Clearly, his success does not escape him either.

Once inside, Nik proceeds to use his device to tell the barista “Want lemon cake.” I admonish him to use his nice words; “Please,” he says in the quirky digitized monotone I have come to love. In this moment, the endless hours of teaching, prompting, shaping and modeling fade from my mind as I watch the naturalness with which he connects with the girl behind the counter.

For a fleeting moment, I tell myself I might consider buying a pony if he asked.

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Today, I am grateful for the recorder. Nope, that’s not a typo, I swear! Yes, the recorder. You know, that simple carved flute which, through the ages, has made parents cringe and dogs howl as children endlessly torture the eardrums of everyone in a ten-mile radius attempt to make something resembling music. (See yesterday’s post for a visual.)

Now, in all fairness (and in my defense), I am slightly biased; my parents played in a baroque recorder ensemble when I was a young girl. I’ve always loved baroque-era music so I enjoyed it. Once a month, the group would meet at our home to rehearse — for what exactly I’m not certain; I don’t think they actually ever performed except for each other. But I loved those nights; mom would make coffee and serve some sort of snack and I’d sit in Daddy’s avocado green corduroy chair in the corner of the room and listen, maybe even do some homework.

Inevitably, as the group was about to call it a night, someone would decide it was a good idea to play a solo on the sopranino recorder. (Think piccolo-like but not as pretty, and far more shrill when played off-pitch.) We all would laugh with great amusement as our poor dog, Baroness, would sit and “sing.” Of course, knowing what I now do about sensory processing and hyperacusis, I feel badly that my poor pup was probably in pain.

I also have many, many fond childhood memories of listening to my Nana playing violin and recorder duets with my parents when she and Granddaddy would come to visit. Nana was a remarkably talented violinist who played with an all-female group called Polly and her Pals way back in the 1920’s or 30’s and who also once played as regular member of the chamber ensemble at Music Mountain in Connecticut. Call me weird, but I’ve always associated baroque recorder music with warm and happy memories. I had always hoped to share that love of music with my children.

A few decades later –the recorders have long since been given away and my beloved Nana and Granddaddy many years passed. Somehow, I ended up with a child’s music set which included a wooden recorder. It was given to us by well-intentioned friend of the family who knew Nik loves music. What she didn’t know at the time was that Nik doesn’t have the manual dexterity or control –or the oral motor skill—necessary to play any of the instruments she gave us. With more than a touch of sadness, I put them away in a drawer –along with sharing my love of music with my son– and forgot about them.

Nik is nonverbal. We don’t know if he will ever talk –and frankly, I don’t care as long as he can learn to communicate his wants and needs. He can make some vocal sounds including several letters of the alphabet. The letters he struggles with are the ones requiring shaping of his lips or the voluntary movement of air forward. He says the letter F by sniffling through his nose. Pretty smart, actually, since that’s pretty much the way he hears it. He can make the PUH sound for the letter P, but cannot blow air out as if he were blowing out a candle or pushing a cotton ball along a table top. Years and years of speech/communication therapy and it’s all been tried over and over to no avail.

Ironically, Nik is all about music and sounds and making the sounds have meaning. In his own way, he is a supreme linguist of a language so unique that almost no one but he and I understand it. Truly, he associates meaning with certain songs that even I can’t figure it out for a while. He also adores his once a week music class at school. So, when he started digging through a drawer the other day, looking for “triangle block” (don’t ask—I have NO.IDEA!), he pulled out the recorder and refused to put it away. Not wanting to make that my “hill to die on,” I let him have it.

Nik immediately brought the recorder to his mouth; I can only assume he’s seen this in his music class. God knows I haven’t shown him!  Then, a light bulb went off in my mind. Or is it that it went on? Either way, I had a Eureka! moment.

“What if I could use Nik’s ability to say the letter P sound and his love of music and sound to help him learn how to blow out of his mouth? I mean, it’s been tried a million times before, but, well…what if?”

It’s a work in progress, and I’m sure the day will come when I will regret it. However, for now? All I know is my son is, little by little and with growing confidence and consistency, learning to make that god-awful shrill TOOT! from that recorder. The combination of that sound and the laughter which echoes after are the finest music I’ve ever heard.

Someone remind me of this later, okay?

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[Ed. Note: November is National Blog Post Month (aka NaBloPoMo; click to learn more about it). While I hadn’t set out to return to my blog with any specific plan, I stumbled onto another monthly blogging theme – Thirty Days of Thanks. Since November is the celebration of the Thanksgiving holiday in the U.S., I decided this might be a nice way to jump back into my blog and reconnect with you, the faithful readers who keep checking back and dusting off the screen. I’m thankful for you, too.]

In the midst of a tough day, there are these golden moments for which I am so very thankful…

Nik asked me to come play with him. It’s the first time, ever, that I can recall him using actual words to make such a specific request of me. He stood at the gate in the playroom, resting his device on top; “Sit, Mama, play” he implored with his whole body, making full eye contact. Both my child and my heart would brook no resistance. For nearly twenty minutes, we drew scribbles, shapes and letters on the iPad as we sat on the sofa, Nik’s warm little body leaning into mine as we wrote and made sounds together.

It took coaxing and more than a little prompting at first, but we took turns drawing the lines to complete the letters.

“Nik, draw a line down, baby.” With a little assistance, he did. Then I drew a line down. “Can you draw the line across to make the letter A?” With a sure hand, Nik dragged the stylus across the screen. He looked at me with a questioning look and intoned “Aaaa” to tell me he knew we had just made a capital A. Repeating the process for the letter B, I had Nik draw the line down then I drew the “bumps.” Ever the perfectionist, when my marking was bigger and there was a gap at the bottom of the letter, Nik tried to lengthen his first line with interesting results.

“Great job, buddy! What letter did we make?” His eyes lit up as he said “Buh” and shook his hand in an approximation of the sign for the letter B. And on we continued, sometimes hand-over-hand for the harder, curved letters, all the way to G.

Knowing he’d reached his limit, I let Nik take the lead. Thinking he would take the iPad away from me and turn on his music, I was surprised when he thrust the stylus back into my hand. “What do you want, love?” I smiled. He tapped the blank screen then signed “Please.”  “Do you want mama to draw shapes, numbers, or letters?”

I waited while he contorted his sweet little face with a mighty effort. My heart was about to shatter with shared frustration as I watched him, knowing he was trying so hard to form a sound. Just as I was about to tell him to use his “talker,” he let out a series of short, breathy sounds which, I swear, sounded like he said “ABC” as one word… a la Big Bird’s song. My eyes may or may not have gone a little wide and gotten slightly misty when I asked him, “Did you say A-B-C, baby?” He signed “please” again.

After a few rounds of drawing ABC’s and singing along, it was clear; Nik was spent and needed a break so he got up and started wandering in the playroom. As he walked, I took the iPad and wrote the word hammer.

We’ve been struggling for a very long time to figure out just what, if any level of reading comprehension Nik has. His cognitive and communication disabilities make it nearly impossible to test with any reliable accuracy. We know he can spell and decode words, but we can’t quite tell if he understands the words he is reading unless they are paired with a spoken word. Because of his disabilities, Nik relies heavily on auditory reinforcement – pairing the sounds with the visuals.

I held up the iPad and showed Nik the word. “Can you find this, sweetie?”  He approached the iPad and traced his finger across the word, much as an early reader does when keeping their place in a sentence on a page. I knew he was decoding it –sounding it out in his head. I waited as he did it again. He cocked his head to the side. “Where is it, love?” I prompted. He looked around the room a bit before he spotted it. Nik walked right over to the reflex hammer from his doctor kit and brought it to me!

Next, I wrote vest. Seeing, decoding, understanding; Nik brought me his swim vest. Feeling giddy, I wrote 3 socks; it was a long-shot. Nik struggles with numbers and counting so I wasn’t sure if had set him up for failure and frustration.  There was two pair of socks on the floor by the laundry closet door.  Again, the finger, the decoding, the head tilt…and off he went toward the socks. Nik immediately picked up two socks; it made sense as we sing about how “shoes and socks will always come in twos.” He hesitated.

“How many?” I prompted. He looked at me for a moment then bent over and picked up… one.more.sock.  He brought me exactly three socks. Not four. THREE.

And on this went for a few more words.  I added some complexity—

“Get orange hat.” He got it.

“Put hat on.” He did… on my head.  (Smart alec kid! Who says kids with autism don’t have a sense of humor?)

I admit, “Put hat in blue bucket” may have been pushing the envelope a bit. He struggled with that one.  But…

NIK READ. Like, really, truly read! And he understood what he read!  I didn’t speak the words at all and gave him NO help other than asking “How many?” for the socks.

He.Read.

Signaling the end of our play time, Nik walked to where I sat on the sofa, took the iPad out of my hands and turned on his music. Without so much as a backward glance my way, he crossed the room, turned the bucket over and climbed on top to sit by the window.  The message was loud and clear – “All done, Mama.”

Somehow, I think we’ve turned a page. And, oh, my little bear, this is just the beginning of an exciting new chapter.

“The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” ~ Lao Tzu

“I am unwritten, can’t read my mind, I’m undefined
I’m just beginning, the pen’s in my hand, ending unplanned…”

“Unwritten” (N. Bedingfield, D. Brisebois & W. Rodriguez)

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Nik’s school is on a field trip today to see this movie:

Last night, I sat with him to show him the movie trailer on his iPad to prepare him that his school day would be different from his usual routine. As the video began to play, he snuggled against me and put his head on my chest. *cue lump in throat and misty eyes*

When the trailer finished, Nik reached for his speech device and promptly spelled chimp…

T-I-M-P

The plural? CHIPS, of course.

I almost died from the cuteness.

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