Sunday, October 24, 2010

Me Too Too

Melody's latest thing--If I respond to her comment with "me too," she says, "me too, too!"

Friday, October 22, 2010

Theo, What Are You?

If there were a lovebug aptitude test, Theo would score off the charts. He has achieved genius level with his ability to say things so sweet it's impossible to think the words are from a 7-year-old boy. An impromptu improvised song about his love for his little sister and her hugs and kisses, for example. His ability to cuddle, protect, and all-around send your heart a pitter-patter are at a level so high, his peers may never catch up.

But my Theo isn't a savant. He doesn't calculate complex numbers in seconds. He still can't add 5+3 without a number line. He can't compose music. After 10 months of piano lessons, he still struggles to plunk out Twinkle Twinkle. And he doesn't have a photographic memory, though his memory does surpass most kids his age, probably.

People who don't know about autism (and I surely would have raised my hand 5 years ago, so no judgment here) think of Rainman. An autistic savant. Someone who is genius but "weird."

But the truth is, obviously, that autism is a huge spectrum. Theo would be called high functioning, but with a below-average IQ (though I've never believed any of the IQ tests. I'm not in denial, I just know he  hasn't been tested properly because he doesn't respond well to that form of testing).

Temple Grandin, an Aspie (aspergers) woman who has basically revolutionized what we know about autism, says there are three types of thinkers:

These children often love art and building blocks, such as Legos. They get easily immersed in projects. Math concepts such as adding and subtracting need to be taught starting with concrete objects the child can touch. Drawing and other art skills should be encouraged. If a child only draws one thing, such as airplanes, encourage him to draw other related objects, such as the airport runways, or the hangers, or cars going to the airport. Broadening emerging skills helps the child to be more flexible in his thinking patterns. Keep in mind that verbal responses can take longer to form, as each request has to be translated from words to pictures before it can be processed, and then the response needs to be translated from pictures into words before it is spoken.

Patterns instead of pictures dominate the thinking processes of these children. Both music and math is a world of patterns, and children who think this way can have strong associative abilities. They like finding relationships between numbers or musical notes; some children may have savant-type calculation skills or be able to play a piece of music after hearing it just once. Musical talent often emerges without formal instruction. Many of these children can teach themselves if keyboards and other instruments are available.
These children love lists and numbers. Often they will memorize bus timetables and events in history. Interest areas often include history, geography, weather and sports statistics. Parents and teachers can use these interests and talents as motivation for learning less-interesting parts of academics. Some verbal logic thinkers are whizzes at learning many different foreign languages.

Theo definitely doesn't fit into two and three, so the visual thinker category seems closest -- though not perfect. I wonder if he really does think in pictures. His language is developing rapidly now, and little by little I get a clumsy idea of how his brain works. I am hopeful that he'll eventually find the words to express the machinations in detail, as lots of spectrum teens and adults do to support children in discussion boards, blogs, etc. It's an exciting thought.

By the way, if you haven't seen the movie Temple Grandin, see it immediately.

I'm hearing her speak at a conference tomorrow. She's the keynote at an Autism/Aspergers conference. I don't even pay $100 bucks to see people I like in concert, but the chance to see her speak was too incredible to pass up. I think one day it will be like saying you saw MLK or the like. Particularly exciting is that her mom will be speaking too; she will talk about what it was like to have a daughter with autism in the 50's, when doctors told mothers that they ruined their children by not giving them enough love.

Temple will be speaking about her new book on social skills. Theo's lack finesse, but he sure has the heart. The other day he said, "You know what I'm imagining? I have lots of friends and I keep them forever."

There is still so much more to learn about the pictures in his head. 

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Annie, Week Three

When I picked him up at rehearsal, he was calm. This gave me the courage to approach the director and ask how it went. I told her how he's loving the experience, and she said, "Oh yes, the kids are loving..."

I expected her to say "it, too."

Instead, she said, "working with him."

I nearly fell over after what happened last week.

Relief! Happiness! Joy!

Guess there will be good days and not-so-good days. I can live with that.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Why, Whatever Do You Mean, Son?

So the other day Theo comes home to find Joe and me cleaning. He says "Ooh, are we having a party?"

Epic housewife fail.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Annie, Week Two

Well, if I came off my last rehearsal pick-up on a high, today was the opposite. Last Tuesday when I peeked in, he was on his feet, part of an activity and fitting right in. Today, when I peered around the corner into the room, I saw all the kids in chairs learning a song, and Theo sitting there punching his head with his fist repeatedly.

This is a fairly new stim that has developed in the past few months, one that obviously Joe and I hate. I still don't know what triggers it--stress, nerves, anxiety, etc... Sometimes it looks like he's doing it out of sheer happiness. I guess I should be grateful that until now we've avoided the common autism stim of banging your head on the wall or floor, or other forms of self-injury. Theo's not injuring himself--not even close. He's just being silly.

I was happy, though, to see one of the teenage production assistants sitting next to him and working with him. Remember how I hoped someone would take a liking to him? I hope I'm not speaking too soon, but it seems like she has. It's her I spoke with after rehearsal and not the director. I'm too nervous to ask the director if he's being disruptive, because I'm afraid of getting an answer I don't want. And then I'm in the position where I have to decide if I do what's best for Theo (having him stick it out) or the rest of the kids (getting to enjoy their rehearsals without interruption).

The nice girl told me he was jittery and kept getting up, but that she sat with him and he sang. And that at snacktime he socialized with other kids. She seemed pretty positive about it.

So though I'm bummed, we all know there are good days and bad days with autism. Hopefully next week will go better. I realize he still has to get used to this. And he really, really loves it.

And I have to work on my own attitude. I keep hoping for things that will take time, if they happen at all. I shouldn't have expected him to tell me which girl is playing Annie so soon. I shouldn't have hoped for him to have an instant theatre buddy who would stick to his side during rehearsal. It's not fair to him for me to be anything but realistic, but it's also not fair to him if I underestimate him, so how do I know how to push him the right amount?

Monday, October 11, 2010

Our Day as Tourists in NYC

Sometimes it's fun to be a tourist in your own city.

First stop, Times Square Toys R Us.

Cue the Rocky theme music!

I won't tell you where we ate lunch, because it's too embarrassing. Coughcougholivegardencoughcough.

Then, the main event...Yo Gabba Gabba live at Radio City! The kids are huge fans of the show, and while of course we balked at the ticket prices, it seemed like a chance we couldn't pass up. Thanks to this prized video, I have no regrets.

Do you dig my Batman-inspired effects?

I remember looking over at Melody on Joe's lap, her face mesmerized by the lights and the characters on stage. Theo was her age when he saw Sesame St. live, and he had the same look in his eyes. And there he was, tall as can be, wearing the goofy cardboard glasses and dancing to the songs with the rest of the toddlers and preschoolers. I adored them both. It was one of those "want to freeze time" mommy moments.

And seeing Melody dance and sing in the theatre--wow! I'd been complaining to anyone who will listen that I have a daughter who doesn't like music. I would sing, and she would yell at me to stop. Now, just in the last few weeks or so, she suddenly has started to repeat bits and pieces of songs--I finally get to hear her singing voice! It's sweeter than I could have hoped for. Worth the wait.

And boy, does she dance. Just look at this video! And one of her biggest requests lately is to watch Dancing With the Stars. She has no tolerance for the judging portions and has me fast forward to the next dance. So far she'll dance to anything but the jive, it seems....

Next stop for them--Broadway. Well, in a couple of years. When they're older, and the prices drop. Shut up, let me have my fantasies.

Friday, October 08, 2010

A Really Good Pick-up

Sharon has the day off today, so this morning I told Theo I'd be picking him up from school.

When I arrived, his teacher told me he was excellent today. That he was happy all day because I was picking him up. That sure erased the last trace of curmudgeon in me for having to take the city bus to get him. My little guy still thinks his mom hangs the moon.

Oh, and on the bus when I told him we were going home, Theo asked, "How does the bus know where to go?"

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

My Son is in a Musical

When I saw the flyer for Annie at the park, I froze. I was all at once thrilled and terrified. A theatre opportunity for Theo's age group, K-6, right here in Sunnyside? There was a part of me that was relieved when I looked at the flyer and saw we'd missed registration. I wouldn't have to bother asking myself if he could do this.

Then I got home and immediately regretted not taking down the info. So the next day I dragged my kids to the park in the rain and called the number on the flyer, leaving a voicemail. There was a website--I clicked thru on my Blackberry as the kids covered themselves in wet sand. I just couldn't wait. When I saw there was a fee to do the play, again the dual reactions came. It was both "GREAT! They'll take anyone if there's money involved" and "Ugh, so this is the state of kids' theatre education in Queens. They can't do it for free at school anymore, so we have to pay for it."

Theo's teacher knows I'm a drama nag. "Are you guys doing a play? Is there a drama after-school program? Is there a music class?" She was nice enough to put on an in-classroom play last year, and isn't sure if she can get permission to do it again this year, though she's going to try. PERMISSION! And Theo actually does have music this year, but the teacher is on maternity leave til January, so there are various subs til then.

I started to research theatre-related stuff for kids on the spectrum in NYC. Thought there would be a lot, but turns out, there isn't. At least not that I can find.

So when I thought about Annie, it just seemed like we had to go for it. I emailed Sofia, the director, and put "my son" in the subject line, knowing that these things can always use boys. Sneaky me.

Sure enough, she called and said she was so happy to see "son" in the subject line! There are about 25 kids in the show and only around 6 boys. She said I could bring him to her house to audition, and that most kids just sang Happy Birthday. I was in luck--the one song Theo really knows!

I spent the next few days teaching him the song "Tomorrow" just in case he could learn it before the audition, but as much as he liked the song, he couldn't memorize it. So Happy Birthday it was.

I was so jittery in Sofia's house. I had been working with Theo, and he promised me over and over again that he would sing using his nice voice. But then Sofia asked him to sing loud, like he was singing to the back of the room, and I knew he'd take that to mean, well, LOUD. He sang in his goofy voice and I asked him to sing nice, explaining to her that he has a goofy voice and a nice voice. She said "let's hear the goofy voice" and I immediately liked her and felt more comfortable. He sang "Happy Birthday dear Annie's mom." Despite all the prep, he still thought we were going to Annie's house. Luckily she got a kick out of it.

Then he sang Happy Birthday again, not as nice as he usually does but much nicer than the first time. She told me he has good pitch, and I was beaming! He actually really does have very good pitch, so I was thrilled that she noticed.

She asked if he could do a reading, and I said probably not, that he reads but is not quite on that level yet, and she said no problem, that they'd do a game instead. She got on the floor and told him to pretend she was a loud little kid and that he should tell her to be quiet. I was about to chime in that he should pretend she's Melody, but I managed to keep my mouth shut, since I was already coming off like an uber stage mom as it was.

He told her to be quiet. She asked why, and he said, "Because I said so." She asked him to say it in a mean voice, and he scrunched up his face and said in a meaner voice, "Be quiet." It was very cute. She asked Theo if he'd seen any plays, and he said "Beauty and the Beast." He meant the movie, but I kept my mouth shut, since the answer impressed her.

But then I knew it was in both of their best interest to get the truth out of the way up front. As I filled out the form, I casually mentioned that he has autism and that he is good at following choreography and direction. I couldn't believe how nervous I was. I couldn't focus on the registration form. As I filled it out, I actually couldn't remember my phone number. Sofia just said "okay" politely... I couldn't get a sense of her reaction. She could have been freaked out, or could have been happy to get the chance to work with a speical needs kid. If she felt either of these things, she sure kept a good poker face.

That night, I got an email with the cast list. There, toward the bottom:

Sound Effects Man: Theo Orecchio

What a thrill to see his name on a cast list! My son is in a musical. Must be what a football player feels like when his kid plays in his first game.

In the days leading up to Theo's first rehearsal, I showed him tons of clips from different versions of the show and movie on YouTube. He grew increasingly excited. "Will I be Annie today?" He thought he was Annie and that he was singing "Tomorrow." He didn't know any of the terms like character, director, rehearsal, we worked on that, too. As for "Tomorrow," I didn't bother correcting him since they do all sing that as the finale, which will satisfy him.

When we got to the first rehearsal yesterday, I hooked Theo up with a few kids I knew from the park (though he didn't recognize them). One boy his age is a kid Theo played with when they were both 1, at playgroup. His mom was kind enough to encourage Liam to make friends with Theo, even though I can tell from all the times at the park they've been together that he thinks Theo is weird.

I know that if the kids can grow to "get" Theo and be his friend, this can be a very positive experience for him and for them. But if they gang up to tease him when he doesn't quite follow as well, it'll break my heart. Actually, what I really hope is that the adults fall in love with him. If they do, the kids will have a better chance of following suit.

I was anxious the whole hour and 45 minutes yesterday during rehearsal. Heck, I had teared up just dropping him off. Just dropping him off! My level of emotion seemed ridiculous. When pick-up time came I peeked in and saw him pretending to be different statues along with the other kids. He was sort of in his own area, while the rest were clustered, but hey, he was doing it and looked like he was having a blast.

The director's assistant told me he was a good boy and they worked on character development that day. He and Liam did an improv game together.

When we left, Theo made my heart full: "I can't wait to be on stage in Annie every Tuesday until March." It was obvious he'd had a great time and was really excited. I asked him to tell me about the improv he did with Liam -- they pretended they were at the zoo. They saw monkeys and robots. Liam bought apples and Theo was the cashier. He showed me the sounds he made for the cash register. far, so good. I had only paid half the tuition ''just in case," but I think this will work out. Even if he's not the best, heck, there are kindergarteners in the show, so it's not like he'd be the only one off beat here and there. And I suspect he'll charm the audience as he did in his dance recital.

I know I've been throwing a lot of darts to see what sticks. There was ballet, tap, T-ball, and now piano and theatre. Some days are frustrating, but I can't quit on him. He deserves a mother who won't give up on him. The more he does now, the better shot he has at a high-functioning adult life. And I have a boy who surprises me on a regular basis with what he's capable of.

Did I mention my son is in a musical?!