Let’s get acquainted.

 

I’m a lot of things but in the context of Rethinking Learning, I’m a mom to two kiddos. One of whom is a just-turned-nine year old who has a smile that lights up the room, loves to sing, jump on the trampoline and dance his heart out every opportunity he gets. His name is Sullivan, aka “Sulli” and he was diagnosed with autism at age two. I also have a typically developing, high-achieving, loving, spunky and often sassy 10 year old daughter.

Frankly, I don’t know which one of them is giving me gray hair faster but if you love a child with an Autism Spectrum Disorder, you know it can be a rollercoaster-of-a-ride. Like a hold-on-tight, friend. It’s gonna spin-you-around and spit-you-out, kind of a ride.

Helping a child with autism achieve their best.

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Well that’s a loaded statement. Oh goodness, where to start? Every single child with autism is different. And there are about a gazillion different types of interventions available. Some things work. Some things don’t work.  Some things have actually made things worse at times. Some things work great for one child and the next, not so much. Everything costs a fortune and managing to schedule all-those-things into a tiny human’s day can be mind-blowingly complicated on so many levels.

Thankfully through our right steps, and even wrong steps and missteps, we have learned a LOT and Sulli has progressed significantly since his diagnosis seven years ago. For the most part, he is thriving in a small 2nd grade classroom with typically developing peers. He does receive some one-on-one support through an RBT, but only for a couple hours a day. He’s come a long way baby, though his progress has come via significant effort, both in healing his body and in rehabilitating his brain.

Therapeutically speaking.

The kid spent his entire childhood in therapy. Occupational therapy, physical therapy, speech therapy. Applied Behavior Analysis, Floortime, Relationship Development Intervention. Hippotherapy, sports therapy, music therapy.   Sound familiar? It’s par for the course for many autism families. Sullivan still receives OT, SLP and ABA services. And we are incredibly grateful for all of our passionate therapists who have poured into Sulli over the years and helped him get to where he is today.

New year, newly realized challenges.

In the scheme of all things autism, Sulli is doing pretty-darn-good. But he still has significant struggles with his expressive language, auditory processing and social skills. And while doing well academically, reading comprehension is becoming more and more problematic as the school work gets more difficult.   This isn’t just about him being about to enjoy a good Harry Potter book, but more so how reading comprehension affects every single subject in school and his general ability to effectively learn. We were realizing quickly that he could quickly go down with the ship if we don’t send him a big fat floatation device in a jiffy.

Where to start?

As with every intervention, digging in and figuring out which direction to go is a challenge. There are many programs available which tout themselves as the solution for reading comprehension problems. None of them are specifically marketed for children with autism, despite reading comprehension being a common challenge for many of our kids. And while reading comprehension is a biggie for Sulli, he still has a lot of other challenges we have yet to tackle. So finding a program that could address many of his deficiencies would be paramount.

Enter Neuroplasticity.

Our trusted homeopath, whom is largely responsible for our son’s improvements medically was the first person to mention the word “neuroplasticity” to me. We knew Sulli’s body was well on the path to healing, however the functionality of his brain still has a lot of making up to do. And while he continues to make progress in his more traditional therapies, we knew it was time to think differently about rehabilitating his brain.

Neuroplasticity is defined differently by many but the core premise is it’s the brain’s ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections throughout life. I learned that with autism, there are many neuro-connections that are either lost, never formed or formed inadequately during development. So obviously the concept of neuroplasticity is extremely exciting and something my gut has been screaming at me is critical for Sullivan’s continued developmental growth.

Fast ForWord

It’s always been odd to me how information travels in the autism community. Depending on one’s demographic or geographical location, what’s new or trending in terms of interventions differs quite dramatically at times. When our son was failing to progress medically many years ago, I started scouring more national resources for new approaches. When I found the one I wanted to try, not a single person in my very large and very active Texas autism community had any experience with it. We proceeded anyway and it turned out to be a very good decision. And thankfully now, that resource has been exposed to our Texas community and many children have benefited.

That trusted homeopath told us about Fast ForWord about two years ago. But again, nobody in my local circle of influence seemed to be familiar with the program, we had a lot of things going on in our lives at the time, so it went to the back burner. And then the phrase “neuroplasticity” seemed to keep smacking me in the face at every corner so I knew it was time to get back to it.

So I go to their website and read this:

Kenny went from 2nd grade reading to a full football scholarship.
Mia went from acting out to acting proud.
David started talking at 20 years old.

You know these children – the ones who continue to struggle despite repeated intervention. They need an intervention that addresses the root cause of their difficulty, not one that provides accommodations.

Fast ForWord does what no other intervention can do: it starts with cognitive skills like memory, attention and processing speed and works from the bottom up, using the principles of neuroplasticity. Fast ForWord aims to remediate the underlying difficulties that keep struggling readers and English language learners from making progress.”

They had me at “root cause of their difficulty, not one that provides accommodations.”

Can I get an amen? All of a sudden all the light is pouring into the room. Yes. THIS. Our goal for Sulli is to not always have to overcome his challenges, but figure out how to help his brain so that things aren’t so dang challenging in the first place. Swimming against the current is exhausting, right? Utilizing the principles of neuroplasticity, Fast ForWord addresses the weaknesses of the brain and helps make them strong.

And like I said, this isn’t just about reading comprehension, it is about attention skills and working memory, auditory processing, listening comprehension & following directions, phonics and phonological awareness and grammar and vocabulary. Autism Spectrum Disorders might not be Fast ForWord’s primary market, which is maybe why few people I know personally are familiar with it, however the majority of children with autism struggle with everything mentioned above. If we break down the components, the program is very well suited to help a vast number of children on the spectrum.

Ease of implementation.

Best of all, the program can be done in the comfort of my own home and only takes 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week. I know squeezing 30 minutes out of our very busy days will prove challenging every now and then, but having the home based options sure beats sitting in traffic, racing between therapy appointment and shoving dinner down from the back seat. Many practitioners offer Fast ForWord in their offices or therapy centers which can be especially helpful for a child who struggles with attending to work or has behavioral challenges. And many schools have brought the program on board too. But for our family, we are excited to kick things off with the home-learning program.

What’s next?

You guessed it! I’m going to be documenting our Fast ForWord journey right here for all of you. After reading much literature and a powerful book on neuroplasticity, I’m incredibly optimistic about the program. And given it is a program that has been helping children all over the country for quite some time, yet I’ve only recently found out about it, well, I simply don’t want a single autism parent or parent of children with learning disabilities to be unaware of a tool that could potentially drastically impact how their child learns and communicates.

Our program starts March 1st and runs for 4 months. With the Fast ForWord Home Program we will touch base weekly with our assigned Educational Consultant, who will provide support if Sullivan needs tips for approaching a particular Fast ForWord exercise, answer any technical questions about accessing the program and generally help keep us on track.  I have a phone call scheduled today to get set up and begin to understand my role in helping Sulli succeed.

Full disclosure, I’ve been wanting to implement this program for quite some time but given we’ve been inundated with autism-related-expenses for the last seven years, the cost of the program has eluded our budget.  In a bit of a panic, I contacted Fast ForWord and asked if they would allow us to use the program at a discount, and in turn, I would document our experience.  To my delight, they agreed. I have a background in writing and have a passion for sharing information to equip parents with the most information we can possibly have when making decisions.

I guess it’s a bit of a gamble on their part because I will be sharing our authentic journey with this program, whatever that may turnout to be.  I’m optimistic and hopeful that this blog will be about a success story, but if it’s not working, or isn’t a good fit for my son, you’ll certainly be hearing about that too.

Look for a post from me every 1-2 weeks. As I continue to learn about the ins and outs of the program, you will too, and I look forward to sharing our experience! The good, the bad and fingers crossed … the awesome.

Till next time,

Mama Woz

 

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Road Work Ahead

I’m guessing I’m not the only one who’s a fan of Facebook memories, right? For those of you non-Facebookers, every so often Facebook pops up an “on this day” xyz number of years ago and reminds you of a post you made way back when. It’s a delightful way to slip back in time and walk down memory lane. And given that we often share some of our most precious times in our lives with social media, the memories that tend to pop up are often meaningful.

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Well, Facebook reminded me of this little ditty of Sullivan that I posted a year ago last week. Along with this picture I posted a commentary of how absolutely f-l-o-o-r-e-d I was that my sweet boy asked for salt on his beef. I was blown-away. I’ve talked about noticing the nuances of language development before, and how the little things are a super big deal when dealing with a child with autism or language development delays.

I can remember how happy we were. Both my husband and I looked at each other jaws dropped at this huge milestone. Our boy realized his beef was under seasoned and asked for salt! In one cohesive sentence, no less! It seems so simple to most people, but so much went into that sentence for Sullivan.

Oh baby.  Look how far you’ve come.

I knew we’ve had some blockbuster gains over the last several months, but it wasn’t until seeing that Facebook post last week that I was able to realize just. how. FAR he’s come. A year ago, that sentence was HUGE. Now, it’s hard to remember what it was like when his expressive language was so simplistic.

I wrote a blog a couple weeks ago about the gains we’ve seen as of late so I’m not going to cover that here again, but instead I want to talk about why I think Fast ForWord has been such a game changer for Sulli. It’s taken me several months into the program to begin to wrap my head around it.

 

Filling in the potholes.

We started our Fast ForWord journey at the beginning with their “Language” series. Then moved onto the “Language to Reading” series. A few weeks ago as we started to near the end of the second stage of our Fast ForWord programming, I had one of our scheduled calls with our Educational Consultant. We were discussing how Sulli has been doing and the fact that he would be wrapping up the second series soon and moving on to Reading Level I.

She asked how I thought he was doing, and I told her about all of his incredible gains but mentioned to her that of all the gains that we are seeing, the one area that we hadn’t seen a lot of progress in was reading comprehension.

Well, she proceeded to explain some things to me that I just hadn’t considered before, or perhaps someone had explained to me before, but my brain was too maxed out on bandwidth at the time to absorb it. You see, keeping up with the multitude of challenges that face a kid with autism can suck up a parent’s brainpower like a turbo vacuum cleaner. At any rate, I’m happy I could hear it now because it was a big light bulb moment.

Listening, Language and Reading Comprehension

So I tell our Education Consultant about my concerns with his lack of progress with reading comprehension and she replies … well, yes, we haven’t gotten there yet.

She tells me to think of the brain like a road. And Sulli’s road has a lot of potholes. We don’t know where they’re all at exactly, but the work we’ve been doing with the first two series of Fast ForWord has been identifying them, and slowly starting to fill them in.

Once we fill in the pot holes, the road to reading literacy will be much smoother. It’s a very simple visual but one that made so much sense. I happen to live on an island in the Caribbean so I know a thing or two about pothole laden roads. And I know it is so much easier to coast over a filled in hole than constantly maneuver around them.

This is why Fast ForWord is so good. It addresses the core deficiencies. It finds the weak areas (or potholes) and strengthens them. It isn’t about finding a work around. Navigating a pothole laden road is exhausting and stressful, and when you nail one, it hurts like heck. I don’t want Sulli to always feel like he has to steer around his challenges. How much better to mend the hole and drive right over?!?

The Literacy Pyramid

This pyramid was shared with us as we were trying to better understand what is happening in Sulli’s brain as we move through the Fast ForWord program.

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Now, many kids with autism have very scattered skills. One kid can be completely neuro-typical in one area, perhaps even more advanced than his/her age, but then can be years behind developmentally in another area. It can be so frustrating to witness brilliance in one area and know that the brilliance exists all over, but it’s locked away.

Autism is complex. I know some people with autism who can read and write with stunning form but can’t speak a single word. Others like Sulli, who were hyperlexic when they were young, meaning he could read well above average at age 3, but as he’s aged we’ve realized that his comprehension is vastly delayed compared to his fluency.

So there are certainly exceptions to the hierarchy of this pyramid, but in terms of what we’ve witnessed, the importance of the bottom layers have become crystal clear. Yes, Sulli can technically do all of these things, listening, speaking, reading and writing. But in order to move his language, reading and writing into the complex realm in which we live, we’ve got some serious work to do on the foundation.

It’s coming together.

All of the Fast ForWord exercises we’ve done to date have been ALL about listening. And clearly Sulli had a LOT of potholes in this department. He has always responded better to us, his family, because we’ve learned the best way to communicate with him. Our tone, pace and complexity of sentences … we’ve naturally modified for him. But guess what? The world outside our four walls doesn’t work that way.

We’ve been doing these exercises at least five days a week (more if we can) for the last four months and his auditory and language processing has sped WAY up. He is listening better, he is hearing more. Not just trying to string together bits and pieces of conversation, trying to keep up, but actually beginning to keep up! And because of this, we’ve seen an explosion in his speaking skills.

Next Steps

We recently moved into the Reading Level 1 exercises and while these games are a departure from the ones he’s done before, I’m enamored by how the program continues to break down small skills as building blocks to bigger ones.

If the first two series are any indication of Sulli’s continued progression, we remain extremely hopeful. We don’t just want Sulli to be able to read, we want him to enjoy reading and be able to get lost in the world of imagination great literature provides. We don’t just want Sulli to be able to write, we want him to be able to eloquently share his thoughts, feelings and creativity.  And of course, we want him to be able to pour out his complex thoughts, emotions and questions though his expressive verbal language.

Baby steps turn into big steps. And before we know it, we look back and see how far he’s come.

Till next time,

Mama Woz

What A Difference A Few Months Make

Bear with me while I tell a story.

Our family-of-four went to dinner recently at a fairly nice restaurant, cashing in on a gift certificate I’d been lovingly given for my birthday. Both of our children minded their manners, took turns talking, contributed to the conversation and even took turns sharing a delectable dessert.

After we got home, we asked our typically-developing 11-year old daughter to take charge of our 9-year old son with autism’s bedtime routine, and get him all snuggled in so my husband and I could enjoy some adult time on the patio.

She joyfully agreed. I think this is only the second time in their lifetimes she’s done this. It wasn’t until recently that we’d ever even considered asking her given our son’s challenges. But soon, we overheard our son independently getting ready for bed. Jammies, potty and teeth brushing. And then we heard the two of them giggling, conversating, and playing pirates for about another half-hour before they settled down and were out for the night.

Am I dreaming?

Clearly, not all of our nights are this picture perfect but it wasn’t long ago when what I just described felt like an impossibility. Yes, Sulli had made some significant gains before we began the Fast ForWord program but he was still struggling significantly in many areas. And as my husband and I sat there, glowing a bit from the delightful evening we were experiencing, he turned to me and said, “That dang computer program has been one of the best things we’ve ever done for him.”

“That dang computer program” otherwise-known-as Fast ForWord.

I love my husband’s perspective because he’s generally more objective than I tend to be. It’s easy for me to get in my head, consider the bazillion different things we have going on and over analyze. For my husband it’s simple. The only thing that’s changed in Sulli’s intervention plan in the last 3.5 months is the implementation of the Fast ForWord home-based program. He’s right. Something I don’t easily admit to much.

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Full speed ahead.

It’s getting easier for me to put my finger on the changes we’ve witnessed the longer we’ve been using the program. All the nuances we noticed in the beginning have become more pronounced and I can say with certainty they aren’t a fluke.

Oddly, while I was expecting the most improvement in reading comprehension, that’s the area where I feel like he’s progressed the least. He’s certainly made some gains that we are pleased with but the big surprise is all of the other areas of improvement.

I’ve talked before about when you are an autism parent, there are a lot of fish to fry. So prioritizing is important. Case in point, while we know reading comprehension is extremely important, that gets trumped by his expressive language skills, listening skills, following directions skills, conversation skills, desire to interact with others and developing social skills.

Right now, as his mom, seeing him truly enjoy the social interactions of childhood and watch his language skills skyrocket, especially after spending so many years so isolated and unable to do many things independently is incredible. Yes, I’m concerned about him reading and comprehending on grade level too, but it falls a bit lower on our list of priorities.

The good news is, with Fast ForWord, we’ve gotten BOTH. But the developmental growth we’ve witnessed is what has us doing cartwheels.

Auditory and Language Processing

I’ve been saying for years that until Sulli’s processing speed actually speeds up, he is going to continue to struggle significantly. If a person processes what they hear too slowly the ramifications are widespread. Slow processing speeds cause children to miss words in conversation and they can’t fill in the gaps. It can mean they miss subtler aspects of language. Often times they are working so hard to understand the words, they miss the point. It makes it harder to understand multi-step directions or can make them feel lost when listening to stories with lots of events and characters, or lack confidence in navigating the speed and complexity of typical language with their peers.

I imagine it is a lot like being a tourist in a foreign country where a person only understand bits and pieces of language, coupled with also being ill-equipped to use the context clues of an interaction to figure things out.  How hard it must be to feel like you are in a continual state of feeling lost, out of place and unable to grasp the entirety of conversation.  It’s no wonder children on the spectrum often withdraw socially.

Fast ForWord says that by exercising processing skills through intensive, adaptive activity, actual physical changes occur in the brain. That’s neuroplasticity, folks! Sulli has been in therapy for what feels like his lifetime but the intensely repetitive, new neuron-connecting exercises that the five-days-a-week Fast ForWord program provides, simply can’t happen in once weekly therapy sessions.

Improvements worth celebrating.

If I couldn’t tell from my daily interaction with my son how far he’s come, I could certainly tell by sitting with him while he is completing his Fast ForWord games daily. Good golly, the difficulty has increased quite a bit! Sulli finds some games easier than others, but oh-man, even I have to pay close attention or I would answer some questions incorrectly. There’s one game where tones come in rapid succession and the kiddo is supposed to identify the order. I literally can’t do it! Meanwhile Sulli is zipping through.

Here’s what we’ve seen. Sulli is super engaged! He wants to engage in conversation so often we have to get onto him about interrupting! He might not always be on subject, and some of this speech is still repetitive but it is constant and fluid. His sentences are longer and the structure more intact.

His staple answer to most questions has traditionally been, “I don’t know.” Answering questions has always been so hard for him so he lacked the confidence to even try. Can you imagine having all that language and thoughts in your brain but feel incapable of getting it out? Now his answers are more complex and delivered with more ease.

He’s more and more excited about interacting with his peers and his sister. This past week was our first week of summer and both the kids were home. I was shocked at his willingness to engage in games that require turn taking and back and forth conversation. He and his sister frequently ran off and figured out something to do together (at her direction, I’m sure) but this is the first summer this has ever happened!  Sister is enjoying the reciprocal interaction with her brother as much as we are witnessing it!

He’s doing more and more things that remind me of a typically developing kid! Chasing the cat around the house, sneaking treats when we aren’t looking, pretending he is different kinds of animals, or ghosts or monsters. He’s also more willing to try new things and have unexpected changes to his schedule. When he does begin to get worked up about something, he’s much easier to calm down and reason with. He’s more receptive to answers to questions that are open ended vs. well defined. For example, before he would need to know exactly what time we were doing something and now we can simply respond “in a few hours” or “when we get around to it.”

I’ve been able to have conversations with him about being responsible, being kind, staying safe, being appropriate, using manners, etc. and gone is the blank stare I’ve historically seen. It’s been replaced with him communicating some understanding of the concepts and putting them to use in his daily life.

Yes, we still have lots of work to do.

But these are blockbuster changes for our sweet boy.   It’s true we’ve been laying the foundation for years with many other interventions but the progress he’s made in the 3.5 months since starting Fast ForWord has been truly exponential. It is profoundly heartwarming to see your child making leaps and bounds, especially when he’s had to fight for every developmental gain for so very long.

We are currently about two-thirds of the way through the Language to Reading v.2 program and are very excited to continue. After researching neuroplasticity for quite some time, I’m very pleased that Fast ForWord has provided us such clear insight into how exercises for the brain can actually address the root cause of difficulty and how the brain can rewire itself to overcome those challenges.

And after all these years, we are looking forward to more quiet evenings on the patio while our kids play together.

‘Til next time,

Mama Woz

 

Movin’ on up.

It’s been awhile since our last post but that doesn’t mean we haven’t been hard at work. A few weeks ago, Sulli completed all of the programming for Language v2 and we’ve since moved on to Language to Reading v2. Which basically means he’s accomplished a lot, but things are getting increasingly more difficult.

As I mentioned in my last blog, as we’ve worked through this program, we’ve noticed some games are far easier for Sulli than others. A few games he mastered very quickly and others took much longer.

To date, I’ve mostly shared how Sullivan has benefited from the program (it’s still going amazing) but haven’t dove much into what our time on the computer actually looks like.  I bet you’re curious, right?

First, the transition.

The good news is Sulli had come to really enjoy his daily “computer games” as we call them. Especially towards the end of completing Language v2, his confidence had increased significantly and I truly believe he was beginning to think of the games as fun instead of games for work.

And then we “graduated” to the next level. All of the games are more difficult and he told me daily that he wanted his old games back. I knew it was a growing pain that we would get through and told him he was just getting too smart for those old games and he needed new ones to keep flexing that brain muscle.

So, what’s it like?

Honestly, I think everyone could benefit from these programs as I can’t count how many times, while sitting next to Sulli, I have to think extra hard for the correct answer and frankly would have missed several if I’d been the one clicking the mouse.

Sky Gym is a game in the first level and Jumper Gym is the next step up. In both programs, a tone is played. The tone either goes up in pitch or down in pitch. It started out with one tone and Sulli would click on an up or down arrow indicating the direction of the pitch of the tone. Eventually once he mastered the single tone, it increased to two tones in succession and Sulli choose the appropriate up or down arrow in the order he heard the tones. Additionally in the beginning the length of the tone was stretched (or technically slowed down) a bit.

Since moving on to Jumper Gym, the same premise applies yet it has become increasingly more difficult. I believe we are up five tones now that come in rapid succession and his ears have to quickly differentiate the direction of the pitch for all of the sounds, remember what he heard, and click the arrows accordingly. This game takes an inordinate amount of focused listening to hear and simultaneously distinguish between the direction of the pitch very quickly.

Copy of BRAINGAMES

Ele-bot, which was the last game Sullivan mastered in Language v2 was certainly a challenge. It is a game that deals with a lot of re-ordering of words that make the sentence structure unnatural, and thus, requires an incredible amount of focus to not only hear what was spoken, but then be able to visually match to images on screen.

For example:

“The clown who is chasing the girl who is little is big.” When we first started out, my guess is Sulli was probably hearing “The clown is big” or perhaps “the girl is little”. Well that didn’t cut it in this game (or obviously in life) because there are four images on screen to choose from, all with a combination of big or little clowns, big or little girls, and girls chasing clowns and clowns chasing girls.

Another example would be practicing the negative-passive voice. “The mouse is not being chased by the cat.” Things in the negative have always been a challenge as I’m certain Sulli initially heard “The mouse is being chased by the cat.” As you can imagine, just missing that one word when processing that statement changes it completely and becomes quite problematic for kids in everyday life.

As we’ve moved on to Cosmic Reader from Ele-Bot in this next level, it continues to get more challenging. “The chicken that is leading the sheep that is walking is jumping.” Again, four pictures will be displayed that will all have a chicken and a sheep, but in some the chicken will be jumping, or the sheep is jumping or the sheep or the chicken are leading. It’s confusing even typing it now so I can only imagine that for a kid who has auditory processing issues, this might feel like the Mt. Everest of listening.

He’s getting the hang of it.

While there were certainly some tears of frustration when we graduated the first program and moved to the next, he seems to have now gleaned a comfort level with the new games and has finally stopped talking about the old ones.  Yippee!

I’ve only touched on two of the five games in Language to Reading v2 and even for the ones I’ve covered, I’ve certainly over simplified the totality of what the games actually do. If you are interested in some not-so-light-yet-insightful reading, hop on over to Fast ForWord’s website for a robust listing of case studies or click here for an impressive list of featured reports on the results of the program. You can even request a demo so you can see for yourself how the games work.

2 ½ months.

We are a little more than 2 ½ months into the program and I’m feeling very grateful that we found Fast ForWord. We are still noticing those glorious subtle changes at home and school but when I look how far he’s come in the program itself, I’m confident we will continue to see significant growth on multiple levels. Reflecting on what he was able to accomplish within the program the first couple of weeks vs. now is truly remarkable. It’s only sensible to think that growth will continue to translate to his home and school life as well.

As we wind up the school year, I’m increasingly thankful for Fast ForWord as we head into summer knowing we will be continuing with the program. It will be an excellent program to provide some consistency to his day AND brain.

‘Til next time,

Mama Woz

It’s Really Happening

Brain exploding

It’s been about three weeks since my last writing. Two of those were stretched over different back-to-back spring breaks. Apparently my son and daughter’s schools didn’t get the memo that coordinated break times do a family good. Ahhh. One can dream.

But there is good news. Despite two weeks of unpredictable schedules, sticking with our 30 minutes a day of Fast ForWord was totally do-able and even became a welcomed part of our day for my son who thrives with structure.

Removing emotion.

It’s been over 7 years since our son was diagnosed with autism. And over the years we’ve tried multiple interventions. Some have been incredible, others … not so much. But with any new intervention, we are always hopeful. Early on into our journey however, there were times were we let that hope sway our evaluation of the intervention. As we’ve become more seasoned autism parents we’ve gotten much better at removing emotion from our assessment. There are only so many hours in the day and dollars in the bank so it’s incredibly important to pay close attention to the effectiveness of anything we implement.

You might remember from my last posting that just a short time after beginning Fast ForWord, I was asking my husband if I was crazy or was I already noticing a difference. We agreed, that while the changes were quite subtle, we were both seeing them.  Well, it’s only gotten better since then.

It’s not just about reading comprehension.

Fast ForWord is billed primarily as a reading comprehension program. And Sullivan most certainly needs help in the reading comprehension department. However, with autism, we have a lot of fish to fry and franking reading comprehension doesn’t top the list. Sullivan still struggles significantly with his expressive language and conversational skills due to the way his brain listens and processes. So the fact that Fast ForWord addresses auditory processing, attention and working memory skills and listening comprehension and following directions carried a TON of weight in our decision to implement the program.

What’s changed?

We are just now starting our 5th week of this 4-month program. I’m not 100% certain where Sullivan is in regard to improvement with reading comprehension. But here’s what I do know:

He is displaying subtle, yet HUGE language gains. How can something be subtle and huge at the same time? Well, with autism, all gains, however seemingly nuanced, are huge. We’ve noticed more ease with his language. It sounds more natural, less robotic, more spontaneous, and his sentence structure has become longer and more complex.

He’s also being a stinkpot. He’s getting into stuff he didn’t used to.  He’s acting sneaky. We are seeing glimmers of his sense of humor. He’s doing more and more things that are common with typically developing 9 year old boys. This is a WIN, guys. His sense of independence is flourishing, as is I’m guessing, the executive function of his brain.

He’s been joyfully grabbing his book that is part of his reading homework independently. He is reading his nightly chapter on his own and writing two sentences about the chapter on his own. We still have to help him get started, but the desire to do this work at all, much less independently, is a big gain. The wheels are spinning a bit faster.  For me it’s too early to critically evaluate his progress in reading comprehension, but we can see the ball is moving in the right direction.

What now?

We keep plugging away. The 30 minutes a day has become part of our routine and it’s become no sweat fitting it into our schedule. As we move through the program, it has highlighted the scatteredness of Sulli’s skills. One of the games he mastered 100% in just two weeks. Another one we are sitting at just 17% completion as we move through week 5. And the rest sit somewhere in between. The games that are easy for him, he loves. The ones that make his brain work harder, he’s not as much of a fan. So as we continue to work, especially with the games that are more challenging for him, I’m eager to see how the brain is making his neuro-pathways more efficient.

But given what we are seeing, just 5 weeks into the program, I’m eager each day for Sulli to do his Fast ForWord work. 5 weeks into a 4-month program and we’ve already seen some pretty significant gains.  With any intervention, progress in a short amount of time is a win.  But when the program only takes 30 minutes a day and can be done from home, that’s a WIN WIN.

Till next time ~ Mama Woz

 

Fast ForWord Week 1

Our Fast ForWord experience started out with a couple of setup phone calls. The first was with a helpful woman who talked me through the login process and some of the exercises Sulli will be playing in demo mode. Outside of watching a few videos on their website, I didn’t know exactly what to expect, so this conversation was very helpful in terms of understanding what we would be doing daily.

The Education Consultant

The second phone call was with our assigned Education Consultant. Since we are participating in Fast ForWord’s home-based program, we are assigned a consultant that will be our guide for the duration of the program.

I always enjoy hearing from people their history and how they come to hold they job they do. I’ve certainly had many forks in my own road, all which magically seem to build upon one another despite the bits of unpredictable chaos. I learned our consultant, once a freelance technical writer, turned mom, turned substitute teacher, turned full time substitute teacher, came to know Fast ForWord when her school decided to utilize the program for their students with learning differences. She witnessed some pretty spectacular results, decided to implement the program with her own children, continued to be impressed, eventually ended up working for the company and has been there now for 7 years.

Why does this matter? Well, it just does. Through her years working with the program, you can tell she’s become passionate about this program because she’s seen the results first hand. I genuinely got the vibe that she truly wants to see Sulli succeed and I’ll take that vibe on our team any day.

The Setup

If you know how to login to a website, you are good to go. The program is web-based, so there are no special parts or pieces other than a pair of headphones. Well, actually two pairs of headphones with a Y-splitter so Sullivan and I can listen in at the same time. We bought our “parent pack” here, an affordable website recommended by our consultant.

The Program

Fast ForWord has several different levels available. Sullivan is starting with their Language v.2. This program includes 7 exercises (we call them “games”) with fun names like Robo-Dog, Space Commander and Hoop Nut. The graphics are cute and with each game, the program provides intermittent incentives such as Robo-Dog getting to eat some bones or the fish food in Whalien Match flying into the fish tank. It helps keep the kids engaged which is helpful because those 30 minutes can feel a little long, especially when carving out that time in a day full of school and other therapies.

BRAINGAMES-1

If I’m being honest …

When I first tried the exercises myself via demo mode on my first setup phone call, I was feeling a little skeptical. I was concerned they might be too simple, or too boring. In the beginning the spoken sounds and words are slowed w-a-y down and stretched w-a-y out and are delivered via a voice that sounds robotic given the speed adjustment. My ears weren’t loving it and frankly I felt like I had to listen very hard to understand.

I guess that is the point, right? And it didn’t take me long to figure out the challenge these games would be for my little guy. While Sulli is bright and a quick learner, like many kids with autism, his skills are extremely scattered and most of his struggles today are a result of how he processes language.  How he hears it, speaks it and reads it.

Play time.

PS – we are selling this to Sulli as “daily brain games”. Not work. Not therapy. Fun, fun, fun!!! I’m not sure he is 100% buying it yet, but we do have a sticker chart with incentives and lots of high-fives.

Since the program is web based, it can be used from a computer or tablet. We have both but Sulli is comfortable with a mouse, so we opted for the computer, at the desk for a more structured environment. Every day when logging into the account, we see all seven games listed, with 3-4  of them highlighted. Those are our assigned games for the day. Sulli can select the games in any order but we were advised that once we spent a few days with the program, we would figure out which games are easier and which ones are harder for Sulli. They suggested getting the harder on out of the way first, while the brain is fresh and not so tired.

Day 1 was a bit of a struggle. Some of the games are very self-explanatory, others took a little more trial and error before he was able to get into the swing of things. All of the games make a “ding” when answered correctly and a “clunk” for incorrect answers. It didn’t take too long for him to figure out the point of the game but I could tell they were indeed work for him.

Self-adjusting programming.

This software is cool because it gets to know the child. And it self adjusts based on how the child is doing with an exercise, increasing or decreasing the difficulty as needed. Our consultant explained to us that, ideally, the kids are feeling comfortable with the exercises about 80% of the time and are really being pushed 20% of the time. If it were too hard all of the time, compliance would be a big problem. And even when they feel confident with a game, it doesn’t mean they aren’t receiving the benefit. One of the most important aspects of the program is the consistent repetitions because that is how those new connections are formed.

How’s he doing?

Well folks, pretty darn good. At this writing we’ve completed 9 sessions. The first three days he protested having to do his “new computer games” but the sticker chart has been a good motivator and now that he understands what is being required from him, he is gaining confidence.

It’s also been a huge eye opener for me. These seemingly mundane games are challenging for him and every day they increase with difficulty. Even the ones that come more easily to him are challenging in the sense that he struggles with maintaining focus for the duration of the game.

I know we aren’t yet two weeks into the program, so I’m hesitant to even think about results at this point, however I have noticed a change in Sulli’s language and processing time. It’s a nuanced change that would go unnoticed by most, but when you are an autism mom, we quickly pick up on the slightest of improvements. Worried that I might be the victim of the placebo effect, I asked my husband if he thought I was crazy. He said, “If you’re crazy, then I’m crazy too because I’ve noticed the same thing.”

We can’t quite put our finger on it yet, but stay tuned.

Till next time ~ Mama Woz