Thursday, October 28, 2010

Pumpkins to Jack-O-Lanterns: Autism, Language Development, Speech Therapy

It has been a busy week before Halloween.  Halloween can be a difficult holiday for children with Autism Spectrum Disorders, Developmental Disorders, Language Disabilities, etc.  Children who fail to understand the differences between what is real and make believe can find this an unsettling time with all of the spooky decorations.  Even the basic friendly jack-o-lantern face can make them nervous. 

We spent the two to three weeks before Halloween exploring related themes.  I began with a monster theme by reading Laura Numeroff's fun book about raising a pet monster, 10 Step Guide to Living With Your Monster.  It is a very cute book and is not scary at all.  The children then had an opportunity to draw and paint their own versions of a pet monster, name it, and tell or write a short story about it.  We played the Guess Who deluxe version that includes monsters and we used a "build-a-monster" toy to create our own monsters again.

Here is a link to more Childrens books about Monsters and Halloween themes.

This week we focused on the pumpkin.  Younger children engaged in painting a round orange pumpkin on a sheet of paper.  When dried, we used sticky-backed foam sheets to cut out jack-o-lantern faces.  The older children worked on carving their own jack-o-lanterns, with an appropriate amount of assistance as needed.  For some children, this was a first time experience.  This was no easy task for the therapists.  It required extra prep time, lots of hands on work, and clean-up time.  But it was well worth all of the effort.

Some parents may have questioned, silently, whether it was a productive use of therapy time.  The answer I would give is a resounding, "Yes".  Here are some of the lessons learned.

First of all, any experience broadens the child's knowledge of the world around him.  It builds a larger framework of prior knowledge on which to draw for learning and developing in all areas: language, concepts, processes, motor, sensory, social, and emotional skills.  "Activating prior knowledge" is a term one often sees in literature about helping children with learning difficulties. 

Language, vocabulary, concept development:  During the activity much vocabulary was explored from the physical descriptive words (round, sphere, smooth, ridges, slimy, gooey, slippery), the labeling of parts (stem, skin, rind, pulp, seeds), categorization of pumpkins (not as easy as you would think since pumpkins can be classified as either/both fruit and vegetable), and new vocabulary (carve/cut, pumpkin/jack-o-lantern, light/illuminate).  Speech tends to flow much more easily from a child whose attention is captivated by a task and whose imagination is engaged.  Also learning tends to "stick" when it occurs in a functional manner or with practical application.

Concepts and Processing:  Children learned to process the sequence of the tasks; this might be difficult for someone who has not experienced the need to cut off the top first so that they are able to scoop out the insides.  They had to listen to and follow directions to understand how to use the tools and what to do with each one.  They had to process the idea that the toothed edge of the saw needed to be pointing the direction in which one was cutting.   We also threw in some concept processing tasks during the carving time:  Which is larger a pumpkin or an orange?  Is a pumpkin harder or softer than a banana? ...

Motor and Sensory Processing:  It goes without much explanation that this activity involves motor skills:  holding, sawing, pushing, and manipulating tools.  The feel of the pumpkin addresses sensory processing.  Many children with or without Autism had difficulty touching the gooey insides and picking out seeds.  But all of them experienced it, if only briefly.  Some really conquered their difficulties and plunged into the task.

Emotional:  One child in particular is a new client with an Emotionally Disturbed label.  He has been standoffish and minimally engaged in the therapy process.  Having come into the office reluctantly, his eyes seemed to light up when asked if he wanted to carve a real pumpkin.  He was engaged during the entire process, he spoke more readily to the therapist, and he even smiled during the task.  I think the next time he comes to speech therapy, he will not be dragging his heels.  We made a real connection through the activity.

Additionally, many of the children had some fear of the strange jack-o-lantern faces.  This activity took a very innocent and non-threatening pumpkin through the transformation process.  Their hands made that process happen.  The end result was what they fashioned it to be.  Now they have full knowledge and understanding that the scary jack-o-lanterns are all just humble pumpkins decorated or carved by someone's hands.  This knowledge can only serve to reduce, if not eliminate, the old fears.

Social:  All of the above feeds into the social domain because to be social we need to develop our language skills.  Additionally, such a task engages even the least socially developed to child to at least look at you and what you are doing and to pay closer attention thus increasing communicative interest.  When two or more children are working at the same time, it fosters a desire to share the experience, to check out the other one's work, and to show off their own creations.

Expression:  Now that the children have this experience, they will be willing to talk about it, if not initiate the discussions.  They will engage in telling family members about the experience, explaining the process, and describing what it was like.  Only reading a story about carving pumpkins would not build that kind of excitement for them.  For the older children, they will be asked to write sentences or a short paragraph about the experience.  They now will have greater understanding and increased vocabulary for these tasks.

I would say that carving pumpkins is quite the opposite of  "wasted" therapy time.  It is an excellent use of therapy time.

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