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America the Beautiful| Through the Autism Car Window

Hi Everyone. Getting ready for a vacation? Thought you might like to read about our family trip out West that changed our lives.

Sitting on the top of the world

Just need Julie Andrews in the picture:)

Oh Beautiful for spacious skies…

From the moment I was pregnant, my husband Tom dreamed of the day he could retrace his childhood trip out west. He glowed in the memories of mom, dad and kids studying the maps on the kitchen table, packing the lunch meat sandwiches in the cooler, and repeating the rest-stop conspiracy of Dad throwing the baseball high over his boys’ heads so they would chase the ball and use up some of that stored energy. The year our son Aaron was ten and his brother Tommy turned nine, faithful to Ulrich family tradition, we headed west. The main difference between my husband’s family, and ours, was that Aaron has autism.

Preparing for the trip

Aaron didn’t start walking until he was five, and even at ten was not completely independent in the bathroom. So how were we going to follow his needed routines for toileting, understand Aaron’s wants without the use of words or signs, watch his balance issues, and especially, cope with unpredictable behaviors? How were we going to manage twenty-one days of camping, sleeping, eating, and interacting with strangers in strange places? How were we going to survive–much less enjoy–visiting eleven National Parks and Monuments, twelve states, Mexico, and traveling five thousand miles?

Certainly, we were not the first family to attempt a western vacation with a child with complex needs, but we also knew we were not going to be “typical” tourists. Tom and I briefly considered leaving Aaron with a friend or in summer camp, but we decided this dream vacation included our “whole family.” We would make it work.

Adaptations and Accommodations

What could be more All-American?

Using our teaching and parenting skills, we designed adaptations and accommodations for the trip. In previous years we camped in state parks and all shared a big tent. Aaron had a terrible time sleeping on the ground in such close quarters and often our sleeping bags got soaked in rain storms, so for this adventure we decided to buy a pop-up camper. Our pediatrician recommended some medication to help Aaron relax and sleep at night. We planned to follow Aaron’s schedule for meals, breaks, and sleep. We would only visit restaurants at non-peak hours, choose corner tables, avoid long waits, and skip most museums. We installed a child-proof lock on the car door and had a suitcase of games, music and snacks. Tommy and Aaron’s jobs on the trip were to crank up the camper each night and help carry the water buckets–jobs that were successful in our previous trips.

Oh Beautiful for pilgrim feet…

Like the pioneers of old, and Tom’s family a generation earlier, at dawn our family set out from Cincinnati with Tommy’s version of a “Colorado or Bust” sign taped to the windshield, driving not oxen-pulling-a-Prairie-Schooner, but a brown-station-wagon-pulling-a-pop-up-camper. We were confident we could handle any of the challenges we knew would come. We would enjoy our family-time and see the beauty of America. And fortunately, instead of mud and rock trails, we had interstate roads and could travel sixty MPH.

We Americans like to brag about being the melting pot and/or salad bowl of the world, a nation that values brotherhood and diversity.

Even with our best preparation, instead of a three-week vacation, this became a three-week teaching excursion. It seems the human America was not quite ready for us.

At home we were surrounded by people who know us; they saw the beauty in Aaron and our family. With the strangers we met on our journey, we had both negative and positive interactions.

Transformational Experiences, day after day

As if we had a disease, one family packed up their tent and moved it to a site on the other side of the campground, and a pregnant woman crossed the street so she wouldn’t have to pass us.

One evening Aaron was enjoying the loud echoes that he could make in the campground bathhouse, and a young boy ran out screaming, “The Hulk, the Hulk’s in there!”

An elderly man said, “We have one of ‘those’ in our family but he doesn’t travel, he lives in a home.”

“Mom, what’s wrong with that boy? Does he act that way on purpose?” The mother whispered, “SHHH, he’s retarded,” and like we were dangerous, yanked the child’s arm and dragged him away.

“Have you tried the Feingold or gluten-free diet?” or, “I know an allergist in Illinois who can get kids like that to talk.” It seems many people think they have the right to offer advice. I am sure they think they are helping, but do they really think we were so desperate we needed a consultation standing in line at the grocery? We struggle with the question: Can Aaron ever be accepted just the way he is, or does he only have value if he is “fixed” or “cured”?

In Arizona, we were asked to leave a family-style restaurant because, as the manager said, “We don’t serve people like him.” Tom and I were shocked because Aaron was happily eating his pancakes. If he had been noisy, we would have understood, but he was acting as normal as anyone. Sobbing, I hurried Aaron to the car wondering what we were going to do a thousand miles from home. I realized this was the lowest point of the trip and saw a glimpse of the discrimination that has followed individuals of other ethnic and racial groups. The stigma of being asked to leave a restaurant because some anonymous person didn’t like the way my son “looked,” and the management’s open prejudice presented an uncomfortable dark side of America I will never forget.

Oh Beautiful for heroes proved…

Our trip would have been devastating if only bad things happened, but we actually had some very positive experiences.

People would ask with smiles, “Where are you from?”, “Where did he get that red hair?” or “How old is he?” Just ordinary questions, but kind gestures and communication starters.

A parent of a child with Down syndrome commented, “I hope the programs in Ohio are better than in Missouri.”

One young girl smiled at us, “We have special kids in our school. My best friend’s name is Brian, he reminds me of him.”

Several children sought out seats next to Aaron and Tommy on a park swing, maybe just for a closer look, but they made eye contact and tried to make Aaron smile. Several gently pushed Aaron on the playground swings, merry-go-round, and gave him a turn kicking the soccer ball.

Aaron pinched me when we were rocking violently on a small plane sight-seeing ride over the Grand Canyon, the pilot said: “Don’t worry, I’ve had grown men reach over and hold my arm.”

At one roadside park all the visitors collectively held their breath as Aaron climbed the steps up a steep slide. Tommy guided him to the top where after much arm-flapping and nervous hand-biting, Aaron finally let go. As the wind struck his face and he barreled down the slide, Aaron’s expression was one of absolute joy. Everyone in the park clapped and cheered. This was not just a glorious moment for Aaron; this was a glorious moment for every person in the park.

In a swimming pool in Arizona, a life guard got in the water during her break and showed Aaron how to swim on his back.

On a train ride in Silverton, CO a little girl moved into the seat next to Aaron and taught him an adapted version of the game Connect Four.

A waiter in Mexico brought Aaron an extra pack of crackers while we waited for our meal and tried to entertain him by singing Old McDonald in broken English. He even helped cut up Aaron’s food. His empathy and understanding crossed national and language barriers.

Universal Design and Inclusion

In the National Parks we found many examples of universal design: accessible water fountains, paved paths, and self-guided tours enabled us to partially participate in the park activities. Several of the campground managers gave us campsites close to the restrooms. At Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico there were benches and a bypass for the steep climbs. A small work crew with disabilities in Grand Canyon National Park did yard work, and a waitress at Canyon De Chelly used sign language to take an order from a customer. These inclusive accommodations not only made it easier on us, they actually made us feel welcome.

Survival means Adapting to the Environment

We were ambitious. We flew above the Grand Canyon and went down in the caves of New Mexico. We had a lovely lunch at the Broadmore Hotel with water goblets and doilies, but were asked to leave a family style restaurant. We drove to the top of Pike’s Peak and the whole family climbed the ladders of Mesa Verde’s Cliff Palace. We saw Native Americans adapt and survive their desert environment by seeing the value of every living plant and creature. We tasted jelly and saw sewing needles made from a cactus. We heard wolves howling, and we howled back singing every song we knew around the campfire. We took pictures and made memories that will last a lifetime. And perhaps like the Native Americans who live in the desert, we were learning how to adapt to our environment.

Lessons from the Road

We were physically and emotionally exhausted. Many amazing things happened that brought our family closer together. At the same time, though, I feel Tom, Tommy, Aaron and I crossed the line.

We could no longer think of ourselves as a family with one member who happened to have a disability; we were truly a “disabled family.”

I am not trying to be shocking or dramatic. We just had to concede that most of the general public did not seem to have the motivation, information or skills to assimilate us into their version of a “typical family.”

We also learned we had no anonymity; we stood out even in the largest group. Five hundred people came to see the bats fly out of Carlsbad Caverns, but because of Aaron’s shout when the bats emerged; four hundred ninety-nine people were looking at us.

We learned that celebrating the diversity of the landscape of America includes seeing the beauty of the diversity of its people.

Planting Appleseeds

Our experiences reinforced our commitment to the inclusion of people with disabilities to live, work, recreate, and go to school with their neighbors, brothers and sisters. We cherished the positive experiences; the children we met gave us so much hope for the next generation of Americans, and travelers. Like Johnny Appleseed on his trips out west, we tried to drop positive seeds that other pioneer families will nurture and see bear fruit. Perhaps a future Kodak moment for our country will include not only the beautiful American landscapes, but people like Aaron and our family.

Better than “The Buck Stops Here”

One last story: In Missouri, inside the Truman Memorial Museum with its high ceilings and big rooms, Aaron started, “vocalizing.” Oh, how it echoed. The guard came up to us and said either Aaron would have to be quiet or leave. Tom started to go, when another tourist came running from across the room. He looked the guard right in the eye and said, “How dare you speak to them like that. That young man is a citizen of this country and has a right to be here. Harry Truman was a strong supporter of the ordinary person. He, of all people would want them to be here.”

As we pulled the car into our driveway, Tom and I were wondering if it was worth it. Would we ever take another road-trip? But like always, our children showed us the way. As he was running into the house to be the first person in the bathroom, Tommy called over his shoulder, “Next year I want to go to Florida!”

And crown thy good with brotherhood, from sea to shining sea!

Add your voice:

Be sure to leave a comment and let me know about your travel adventures. Is it harder when you are away from home and your typical routine?

Keep Climbing: Onward and Upward

All the best,
Mary
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Copyright Ulrich 2000-2013
Original Work do not copy without Permission

Special Education Inclusion: Blog Radio Interview Plus…

My Superstars

My Superstars

Special Education Inclusion

Dr. Annie Abram interviewed me about Special Education Inclusion on her weekly blog talk radio program: “Ask Dr. Annie Abram.”

Dr. Abram talks about “Parenting Across Generations” and has been doing several topics on autism.

Check it out. Tell me what you think in the comments section. It really has been a journey for Aaron–a person with a disability, for me–the parent of an adult with a disability, and for our family. And, the choices and decisions we made when Aaron was young definitely influence our choices and decisions now that he is an adult. In my heart I know we took the road less travelled and it demonstrated to the world that inclusion is a civil right–and Aaron is a full citizen.

Listen to internet radio with Annie Abram PhD on Blog Talk Radio

Inclusive Education
Expecting Academic Achievement in General Education Curriculum

April 25, 2013
2-3:30 p.m. ET

This interactive training session provides teachers with a structured time to think and plan to enhance their students’ participation in the general education curriculum. Many teams have become outstanding supporters of inclusive education. However, what are the students’ goals in that setting? How much involvement do they have with the general education curriculum? What are the goals for the student’s academic achievement? Have we fully considered all the ways the student can attain access to and demonstrate an understanding of the general education curriculum?
Presented by Stacey Skoning, University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, and Denise Clark, University of Wisconsin Oshkosh.

TASH Members $50 (Individual) $80 (Group)
Non Members $70 (Individual) $100 (Group)

This is an inexpensive way to get the latest information for an inservice or parent group.

Check out TASH for more information:

• Thriving in Transitions: Self-Directed Living, It’s Never Too Late! (Community Living)
Thursday, May 9 @ 1 p.m. ET
• Building and Sustaining our Communities through Time Bank Exchange (Community Living)
Thursday, May 16 @ 2 p.m. ET
• An Overview of Person Centered Planning: The State of the Art (Community Living)
Thursday, May 30 @ 2 p.m. ET

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Free Ideas for Inclusive Classrooms

If you want inclusive ideas for your child or your classroom, Paula Kluth is the best. Sign up for her blog. Paula Kluth

As always, your thoughts matter.

Keep Climbing: Onward and Upward
All my best,

Mary

Other Blog Radio Interviews:

When Schools Say NO to Inclusion

Successful Inclusion

Building Community: one grocery trip at a time

Day 261: Shopping Haul
Creative Commons License photo credit: crimsong19

Building Community: One Grocery Trip at a Time

With Aaron, my son with the label of autism, every trip to the grocery is an adventure.

Before we go, I usually do an ecological assessment (click here) and use some of the skills Aaron learned in his functional curriculum when he was in school.

Establishing Routines

Over the years and with lots of practice, I know what Aaron likes and dislikes. I try to make the shopping trip a good experience for both of us.

We try to go in the morning when the store isn’t crowded. We’ve developed a system where I walk in front of the cart making sure there is no person or display in the way. Aaron then follows pushing the cart with both hands on the handle.

Aaron is really good at following and knows to stop when I stop. He seldom bumps other people or the displays. This is a skill we have worked on for years and practice every week. I am really proud Aaron can do this.

We usually go to the same store.

That way Aaron is familiar with the physical space and layout. He knows the grapes and carrots are on the right front, the bread is in the right back, and after we pick up the milk and yogurt on the far left we will head to the checkout lanes. We usually only buy about ten items so the wait in line is short. We try to build a routine and structure into the experience.

We try to build a relationship with the store personnel.

This store was only a mile from where Aaron went to high school but in the suburbs we rarely see anyone we know. One of the baggers used to be in the special education program. She does a good job and always says hello. Some of the regular shoppers talk to her by name. She is one of our special ed. success stories and has been employed for over 10 years.

But I never know what’s going to happen.

Yesterday we went to the grocery near Tommy’s house because we wanted to let his dog out for him. Even though it was the same chain we always go to, the store was set up differently. STRESS.

I thought noon on a Sunday would be okay, but it was packed and everyone was in a hurry because the football game was due to begin at 1 PM and the only way to survive a Bengal game is with lots of beer and snacks. STRESS. STRESS.

Being ready for surprises

Aaron did pretty well. We got our groceries and went to the car. I was putting the bags in the trunk when Aaron started pounding on the roof of the car next to us. He’s never done that before.

The young man was getting his two young daughters out of the passenger side. He looked up and yelled, “Hey, stop that!”

Quickly I grabbed Aaron and was about to get him into his seat when Aaron pushed me away and again pounded on the top of the car. This time the guy came over to our side of the car.

I started to apologize when the guy said, “Aaron, is that you?”

Aaron gave him a side-ways glance.

I was stunned and didn’t quite know what to say. I looked at the guy and he looked at me, and he repeated, “Is that Aaron?”

There wasn’t much room in the space between the two cars. I took a deep breath and turned Aaron toward the young man. “Aaron do you know him?”

Instead of punching Aaron, the man gave Aaron a high-five.

I fumbled out a, “How do you know Aaron?” and the young man said they went to high school together. He said he used to come into Aaron’s class and take him to the gym. He said he and Aaron used to eat lunch together.

He touched Aaron’s arm and guided him over to the other side of his car and introduced Aaron to his two children who were about 5 and 3 years old. He told them Aaron was a friend from school and then had Aaron give them each a high-five.

Aaron was strangely quiet. He patted the younger child on the head and said, “Ahh.”

I thanked the man for saying hello. He said his name was Todd and he asked a couple questions about where Aaron lived.

We both talked about how Aaron must have recognized him and since he didn’t have any words, he used the pounding on the car to get attention. We both thought that was very clever of Aaron.

Finding More than Groceries

When we worked so hard for inclusion for Aaron in the public schools, we dreamed that Aaron would have a community of people who knew and accepted him. People who could see his gifts and strengths.

Every once in a while we have a unique success story that makes all that hard work worth it.

We’ve never expected big monumental experiences. This magic moment where Todd remembers Aaron and thinks enough of him to want to introduce him to his children–that’s big enough.

YOUR TURN

This is my 50th post. I hope you will check out a couple of the other articles and share your thoughts.
Do you have any experiences to share? Any magic moments?
Do you think the future will be better for adults with disabilities because of inclusion in the schools?

Keep Climbing: Onward and Upward

All the Best,

Mary

Functional Curriculum: use it or lose it

To celebrate the new school year here are some of my favorite posts:

Article 1: Why Do We Go to School?

Article 2: Back to School| A New Year of Learning

Article 3: Back to School| What is Inclusion?

Aaron learning money skills

Aaron learning money skills to use in store

Functional Curriculum

When my son Aaron was in school, shopping was part of his curriculum. From the time he was ten years old he went to the bank and grocery one day a week as part of his special education school program.

This was best practice and came from the work of Drs. Lou Brown, Alison Ford, Sharon Freagon and many others. The idea of a functional curriculum for people with autism, intellectual and developmental disabilities is:

* it takes longer to learn skills, so let’s make sure we teach important skills and not waste their time on dumb stuff

* it takes lots of practice, so let’s give the student lots of opportunities and trials

* use it or lose it, so let’s make sure the skill is something the student will need their whole life

* transition from school to adult life will be smoother

* we only teach skills that if the person didn’t do it, someone else would have to do it for them

* the ability to purchase items would give the person more dignity, self-esteem, self-determination skills and choices in their life

The way it worked was each week, Mom sent in a check for $10.00 and a shopping list. The class went to the same grocery store (because each store is different). Each student cashed their check at the bank and then bought items from the list to take home.

In addition, students also planned a lunch to be made in the classroom the following day. Each would purchase a couple items for that group lunch. These items were purchased with the classroom credit card.

This functional curriculum was based on the philosophy that Aaron would go to the grocery the rest of his life. Before the school year started the IEP team decided this was a high priority skill because he would need to buy food and other items when he was an adult. If he didn’t learn to purchase these items, someone else would have to buy them for him. If Aaron could purchase the items he would have more choices and say in his life and therefore a better quality of life. (Who wants someone else deciding you can only have Cheerios for breakfast all your life.)

Related Service Staff

The curriculum was designed by the IEP team including specialists and the parents. After all, who would be taking the student to the grocery on the weekends, summer, and after school. And who knew what the student liked better than their parents?

I was in the school a lot and went on many of the community training trips with Aaron and his class.

It takes a Village

The speech and language therapist helped Aaron build picture sequences of “shopping at Krogers,” check-off lists with pictures for grocery lists, and learn to interact with the cashier “Thank You” and give a High 5 to the bagger….

The occupational therapist helped Aaron figure out which coin purse/wallet worked best, learn to pay with the next highest bill, learn how to take the money out of his wallet (hold wallet in left hand and take out bills with right) and after many failures of getting the change back in the wallet–it was decided Aaron should just put the change in his pocket….

The physical therapist helped Aaron figure out how to climb up and down the steps on the bus (hold on the rail with his right hand and count the steps), how to maneuver the parking lot (and yes we had an IEP goal that said with 50% accuracy), how to enter the right door–even if there are two “in” doors,
how to reach the items on the bottom shelves (hold on to the grocery cart with his left hand and reach with his right)….

Depending on the therapists schedules, they might only be involved in periodic assessments, or they could go with the class every week. This was an excellent way for the therapist got to really see Aaron in this environment and practice REAL life skills.

The teacher and assistant teachers went every week with the 6-8 students in the multi-handicapped class. She/he helped Aaron match his pictures to the actual items in the store, find his favorite items and put them in the cart, learning appropriate social skills….

After High School

Unfortunately now that Aaron is out of school, he has lost most of those skills because adult service staff refuse to take him to the store or don’t have the knowledge or support they need. Here is a story about Aaron’s home (click here). It is not the fault of the staff. Some of them are very loving and do a great job.

So I take him every weekend when he is home with us. Here is a story of a recent shopping trip (click here).

Aaron and I are a team and we have worked out our own system. We only shop for about 10 items and Aaron puts the items in the cart. Sometimes Aaron will grab something off the shelf and if it is anywhere close to something he might want, I’ll let him buy it. ie. if it is a bag of cookies or cereal –he can keep it. If it is a box of denture tablets probably I’ll tell him what it is and put it back.

Choices: Quality of Life and “If Only”

If I had the opportunity to change things in Aaron’s life, it would be that adult services used a functional curriculum and adult residential services gave Aaron and others with autism and severe disabilities the opportunities to practice their skills. There is no question Aaron would not currently be LOSING these skills. There is no question these skills would enhance Aaron’s self-esteem and quality of life.

The reason I could insist on these skills being taught and used when Aaron was school age was because of the federal mandate in IDEA. The Individual with Disabilities Education Act said that parents were part of the IEP team and the parents had due process if they disagreed with the school personel. There is no such mandate for Adult Services, no due process for parents and/or guardians. Plus, in Adult Services the staff does not have to be trained or have any teaching license.

As my friend Deb used to say, “When I am made Queen of the Universe” I will declare it. Until then, I’ll take Aaron every weekend and give him as many functional experiences I can.

And of course, I’ll dream of the day I am Queen of the Universe. *smile*

What ifs? Comments?

Any stories about your child’s school experiences preparing them for the future? Any luck with using those skills in their adult life?
Anyone else want to be “Queen of the Universe”?

Keep Climbing: Onward and Upward

All my best,

Mary

Related Posts

Building Community| One grocery trip at a time

It’s a Jungle out there| Inclusion in the grocery store

Kill the Turkeys! Life Lessons for People with disabilities