Adventures with Montessori and Autism: Geography

Traditional Montessori geography is a hands-on system with a globe, a continents of the world flat map puzzle, six countries within continents puzzles, and a flags puzzle. To learn the names of continents and countries, there are control maps separate from the puzzles. Here is a pictorial summary (products can be purchased relatively cheaply from ebay):


                 World Globe

Montessori Geography Puzzles

        Continent/Country Puzzles

United States Puzzle

                United States Puzzle

North America Control Map

North America Control Map

World Map with Flags

                     World Map with Flags

As with most things Montessori, I had to alter the curriculum for Beth. She has significant language delays and memorizing new material is not easy for her, so I don’t need her to know every country of the world and their flags at this point. For now we are focusing on connecting the globe to the flat world map, continent names, our country name and flag (United States), and familiar states (those she lives in or has traveled to). The control maps didn’t work for her, so we resorted to using trimmed post it notes so she could easily stick the names of continents and countries directly on the globe and puzzles. To cut costs, I am using a magnetic united states map and I made a little flag from dollar store flag stickers stuck to a tooth pick and just used play-doh as the anchor on the North America Puzzle. Connecting the continents, countries, and states to things Beth can see and experience is the only way I truly see Beth understanding geography. So I am using a combination of direct experience, videos, and toys to help her make the connection between real world and geography globes and maps. Here is a summary of our current program:

Globe and World Flat Map

            Globe and World Flat Map Puzzle

World Map with Sticky Note Labels

                      World Map Puzzle

In addition to the above globe, map, and trimmed sticky notes with continent labels, this was a great video to introduce Beth to world geography and help her memorize the continents:

Also, Beth and I watch a lot of nature videos, which is helping her connect what a continent looks like to the animals and people who inhabit it. In addition, we periodically read these books and play with this puzzle:

Books about Continents (Scholastic Rookie Read About Geography)

Books about Continents (Scholastic Rookie Read About Geography)

World Map with Animals

World Map with Animals (ebay screen shot because I am lazy,

North America Puzzle

                North America Puzzle

North America Puzzle with United States Flag

North America Puzzle with United States Flag (dollar store stickers, toothpick, play doh…saved a mint on a fancy Montessori flag map)

United States Magnetic Map

United States Magnetic Map (Imaginetics brand)

Along with the magnetic United States map above, Beth loves this app:

Short of renting an RV and hitting the road, I was trying to figure out how to “show” Beth America and associate landmarks, monuments, and animals to each state. This series looks promising, so it is next up on our geography journey:


Adventures with Montessori and Autism: Counting

Beth gets distracted while counting and has trouble coordinating counting during hands-on activities or while pointing due to motor planning issues. The simple, distraction-free classic Montessori toys (and some modern off-shoots) were great to build up her skills and fill in gaps. Many of the products are errorless or have easy, obvious placement for the manipulatives. This post highlights products we used to improved her counting (some of these fall under period 4 or higher in the book I am following, 1):

Tumble Down Box

Available From:

Purpose and advantages:

-Errorless counting: placement obvious and exact number of openings in each wood plate (1-10)

-Has a recessed number that child can trace with fingers as a pre-writing activity

-Good for working on coordinating expressive language counting with moving manipulatives (note I wrote previously about a unique problem my child had with emphasis…it is important to teach a child with prosody problems to emphasize

-Some children will love pulling the lever out and watching the pegs disappear, hearing them tumble down (although the noise was too much for Beth, I had to put a piece of foam in the lower portion to dampen the sound)

Tumble Down Box

Tumble Down Box

Spindle Boxes

Available from: Montessori suppliers, eBay, Amazon

Purposes and advantages:

-Although not errorless, the spindle boxes are a great simple beginning counting activity

-Gives a sense of number based on volume, which is rather unique for counting toys; includes a zero box for teaching none

-You just throw the rods into the box and they fall into place easily…reduces distraction caused by manipulating and perfecting placement of counters

-The numbers are very obvious and upright-good for kids who forget what they are counting up to or who have trouble with visual attention

-For kids who like to throw things, it can be motivating because you literally throw them into the wells

-For kids who like sounds, it has a pleasant sound when you throw the rods in the wells (although for a super sound stimmer, it may be distracting…they may not want to stop throwing them in and hyper-focus on the sound instead of the number they are counting to…yes, we struggled with that a bit)


Spindle Box Set-Up

Spindle Box Set-Up

Spindle Box - Completed Acitivity

Spindle Box – Completed Acitivity

Number and Counter Match-Up Puzzle

Available from: Montessori suppliers, Ebay, Amazon

Purposes and advantages:


-To teach kids to match number to number of counters (number sense)

-Distraction free red dots that are big enough to easily motor plan


-Hyper-focus on just matching the squiggled cuts can distract from the counting activity. We definitely had that problem and I had to encourage her to focus on the numbers and counters instead. Worksheets actually worked better for what this toy was trying to accomplish.

-Most K kids are only required to match 1-5 to groups of 1-5 in random format. Beyond 5, 10 frames or similar structured formats are used. I even had trouble matching the 6, 7, 8, 9 because of inconsistent formatting in this toy.

Because of the drawbacks above, I ended up laying out 1-5 and 10 for the counter portion, and encouraged her to guess the match:

Number Match-Up

Number Match-Up Puzzle

Number Match-Up, 1-5 and 10

Number Match-Up, 1-5 and 10

Montessori Cards and Counters

Available from: Montessori suppliers, eBay, Amazon

Purposes and advantages:

-Great beginning counting toy (but I suggest doing the errorless toys mentioned above first)

-Distraction free counters (same on front and back). Beth really has trouble with all the “cute” counters sets out there (apples, penguins, etc), because she obsessively orients them. So this simple counter set really worked to help her focus on the task of counting.

Montessori Wood Cards and Counters (With mats made from scrap material to help Beth know where to place the counters)

Montessori Wood Cards and Counters (With mats made from scrap material to help Beth know where to place the counters)

Montessori Hundred Board

Available from: Montessori suppliers, other versions from Amazon

Purposes and advantages:

-Great for working on expressive language while counting and number recognition. It can also be used to teach skip counting.

-Low distraction, grid helps guide placement


Don’t forget to also work on numbers in isolation.  Just because a child can create this whole board does not mean that he/she can read numbers in isolation. I was given that false sense of security until I realized I also had to work on scanning and reading individual numbers with Beth (discussed in this post  One activity that addresses this issue is to randomly remove some numbers from a completed hundred board and have the child work on scanning and replacing the missing tiles while speaking the numbers.

Montessori Hundred Board: We use little containers of 10 and take lots of breaks. It is a demanding activity!  Teaching her to point to the next square and predict rather than scan the available tiles was the turning point.

Montessori Hundred Board: We use little containers of 10 and take lots of breaks. It is a demanding activity! Teaching her to point to the next square and predict rather than scan the available tiles was the turning point.

Picture/ Number Sequencing Puzzles

Available from: Lakeshore Learning

Purposes and advantages:

-Like 1-10 or 1-20 on Montessori Hundred Board, but you create a picture, which is more engaging for some children (Beth did not seem to care for creating the picture though)




1-20 Monkey Puzzle (I put the 2 next to 12, 3 next to 13, and so on to help with scanning and impulsivity issues)

1-20 Monkey Puzzle (I put the 2 next to 12, 3 next to 13, and so on to help with scanning and impulsivity issues)

Next up for us will be place value. That will be a topic of another post!


(1) This will be a quick and poorly edited series because things are happening fast and I just want to write it all down. My daughter is almost 7 years old and we are starting the Montessori program from the beginning using this book, you tube videos, and common sense alterations. We homeschool and do other standard K activities. Montessori is an attempt to fill in developmental gaps and increase independence. See this fellow blogger’s post on the division of the work into periods as outlined in David Gettman’s book: We are starting with period 1 activities (taken from the book), with adjustments of course:

montessori book

Period Two

  1. Practical- pouring water from a jug, medium difficulty dressing frames, simple braiding, setting table, polishing surfaces, washing hands, washing cloths, scrubbing a table top, sweeping sawdust, brushing clothes, folding clothes, hanging clothes on a hanger, handling a book, scissors exchange, greeting people, kindness to visitors, being silent
  2. Sensorial- advanced cylinder blocks exercises, brown stair, red rods, boxes 2 and 3 of color tablets, geometric cabinet exercises 1-4, binomial cube, blindfold, tactile tablets, stereognostic bags exercises, sorting grains, sound boxes, preliminary presentation of bells, three stage lessons and the names of Sensorial qualities
  3. Language- classified picture exercises 3 and 4, stage 4 of I Spy, exercise 1 of single letter sandpaper letters, metal insets, frequent speech questioning
  4. Math- none
  5. Culture- Land and water exercises, first maps, places classified pictures, preliminary work for classification by leaf.

Period Three

  1. Practical- pouring water from a jug and funnel, difficult dressing (bows and laces), advanced braiding, tying a tie, simple cooking chores, ironing, making beds
  2. Sensorial- Geometric Cabinet exercises, constructive triangles, square of pythagoras, trinomial cube, fabrics, thermic bottles, baric tablets, presentation of bells
  3. Language- double letter sandpaper letters, advanced I spy, exercise 2 with all sandpaper letters
  4. Math- Number rod exercise 1
  5. Culture- all maps, places picture folders, past and present, stories about the past, air, water, magnetism, classifying animals, classification by leaf, parts of animals, parts of plants

Period Four

  1. Practical- responsibility for certain daily care of environment, helping and advising younger ones in a group
  2. Sensorial- Geometric cabinet exercises 9 and 10, thermic tablets, mystery bag, visual work with blindfolds, bell exercises 1-3, tasting cups, smelling boxes
  3. Language- movable alphabet, writing individual letters, writing families of letters, positioning letters on lines, sandpaper Capitals, box 1 and 2 of object boxes, action cards, reading folders exercise 1
  4. Math- number rods exercise 2, sandpaper numbers, number tablets, spindles, numbers and counters, memory play, limited bead material, number cards, function of the decimal system, fractions
  5. Culture- gravity, sound, optics, places artifacts


Coin Identification and Sorting

Beth and I have been working on coin identification all year. We have tried everything and we are very close to mastery, so I thought I would share all that we have tried in hopes that some of these things will work for other struggling learners out there. The first step for Beth (and for any kid) was to find out an association that she could make to each coin (1). For Beth, pennies are brown, dimes are small, quarters are big, and nickels have a smooth thick edge works for her (smooth and thick are concepts we covered at length in Montessori). But still the expressive language for coin names does not automatically pop out of her mouth even though she understands their characteristics, so she needed lots of practice and exposure to coins (and their variations which is maddening in the U.S. -nickles have two different heads, pennies have all sorts of backs). Ideally, the activities would be something she can do mostly or all on her own to minimize frustration. Of course we also work on “give me a penny” and “what is this?” But it is so much better if Beth can practice on her own with the types of activities shown below.

Coin Sorting Mats

The first thing we tried was coin collection mats. Unfortunately to Beth a circle is a circle and she thought throwing a penny in a nickel or quarter circle was a match. So this did not work very well for her.


Coin Sorting on Mats

Coin Sorting on Mats

Coin Sorting Using Coin Collection Folders and Tubes

My next attempt was to change the mats into something with recessions so that she understood we were sorting by size, not just shape. I bought some used Whitman coin collecting folders ( on ebay, cut out one panel for each coin, blocked out the writing with a black marker, and wrote the coin name on top. I was a little disappointed that the coins did not easily slip into the recessions, even after I pounded in several coins with a hammer!  But Beth did not seem to mind…she just set them in the recesses and did not obsess about pressing them in (I can see this really bothering some children though). These worked okay, but trying to get her to say the coin name for each coin was hard because she had to keep reading the name at the top and her focus was on the array of coins and not on the overall category.


Coin Folder Sorting


Close up of two coin folders

Close up of two coin folders

Beth Hard at Work

Beth Hard at Work

We also tried coin tubes (, which I bought on ebay. I carved out a holder for each tube in a foam board. This worked better than the folders because there was no array of coins to steal her attention and the focus was on the coin name. But it was a little hard to judge the size of the clear tube relative to the coin size for say the dime versus the penny. Of course I still had to prompt her many times to carefully look at the coin in her hand and say the coin name before she became more independent. At first it worked better to just use two tubes at a time, so I had to remove and block the names of the other tubes.

Coin Tube Sorting

Coin Tube Sorting

Coin Sorting with Boxes

In order to keep the focus on the coin name and not the array, and because the tubes and folders still did not give the ideal prompt for size, I started experimenting with boxes. First I tried just throwing the coins in a box with a card label on top. Of course this was not errorless and she made many errors with this approach.


Box/Card Coin Sorting



Beth, Hard at Work Yet Again

Beth Hard at Work (Yet Again)

Finally, I got to the semi-errorless, size-based, focus-on-coin-name approach that worked best for Beth! I bought stiff cardboard craft boxes from a craft store and put my X-acto knife to work (just make the slit a little smaller than the coin, then force the coin through and move it around in the opening to enlarge it to the exact size of each coin). Then I pasted cards on top. These worked the best because the coin name is right near the slot and you can’t fit the quarter in anything but the quarter box and the nickel and penny are partially errorless. Because the coin name was right in front, it prompted her to say the name better than all the other arrangements above.

Coin Sorting Boxes

Coin Sorting Boxes

Close-up of 2 Coin Sorting Boxes

Close-up of 2 Coin Sorting Boxes

Other Coin Identification Ideas

This cash register says the name of each coin when you put them in the slot on the left. It was helpful to get us part way to receptive identification (

Learning Resources Pretend & Play Teaching Cash Register

Learning Resources Pretend & Play Teaching Cash Register

These types of search and find worksheets are all over the web. I like this site for easy worksheets:


There are other tools out there I am sure, but we are sticking with the boxes, the cash register, and worksheets for our final stretch of coin identification. Good luck and I hope the above helps someone out there!


(1) Try to find an association that makes the most sense for each child. I suggest a lot of observation…sometimes kids associate more with the back or certain characteristics of coins rather than size. For us, size seems to work fairly well so far.



Beginning Math Adventures on the Spectrum

I remember a little over 2 years ago when I started homeschooling Beth, I couldn’t wait to jump in and start working on math. She liked numbers. She even liked counting. I loved math. I even had experience in my college days, where I worked as a math tutor for adults who had learning disabilities. How hard could it be?

Boy was I in for a surprise. Teaching Beth math was harder than teaching Beth to read (see my previous post on reading here: due to motor planning and visual scanning challenges and a puzzling prosody issue that sabotaged counting.

Rather than rehash the millions of things that failed, I am going to focus on what I finally figured out after endless hours of trial and error. This is not all-inclusive or it would be a very long post, but shown below are some of the methods and materials I used to help Beth achieve early math goals.

Counting and Number Recognition

I used a pocket chart for beginning counting because the numbers are bigger and easier to point to and are organized neatly in rows and the information is presented near eye level and vertically, which reduces the motor planning and visual scanning demand. After hours and hours of lightly touching her hand so that she would move over to the next number and coordinate counting with pointing and endlessly prompting her to find the beginning of the next row, this is where we are:

I would say the above is an exceptionally good clip. She usually makes the occasional coordination error moving from one number to the next or moving down to the next row, but for the most part she’s got it. So that means she knows her numbers 1-40, right?

Wrong. A few months ago I isolated the numbers using flashcards and realized she had a huge problem. She could not recognize numbers past 10 reliably. She tended to look at part of the number (e.g., would say “2” if she saw “12”) or had trouble visual scanning and reading a number from left to right (e.g., would say “21” if she saw “12”). In addition, we had some expressive language problems (or rigid stuck thinking problems?) with the teens, because she so wanted 11 and 12 to be “one-teen” and “two-teen.” Finally we had the problem if I worked on teens only or 20-29 only, for example, she would get stuck on what we just worked on and make a lot of expressive language errors. It was a mess. So while it looked as if she knew how to read numbers 1-40, she actually memorized the pattern on the pocket chart and was probably just looking at the last digit while she was reading off the numbers.

To address these issues, we used tactile cards (like sand paper cards, but softer texture and I had her trace the numbers and say the names out loud. Also we practiced with flash cards or by reading random numbers from the pocket chart, and I had her drag her finger from left to right, much as we do with reading, to help her visually scan the numbers from left to right. For Beth, it is best to work on many numbers at once (at the very least 1-30) to prevent stuck expressive language and to review often (we do at least a weekly review). We have made a lot of progress, but as you can see from this video she still gets tripped up sometimes:


Counting to a Specified Number

The kid just would not stop counting! I would say, “count to 4” and she would blow by 4 and continue on. I tried everything…holding stop signs, hand signals to stop, putting my finger on her lips, having her say “stop” or “shhhhh” after she reached the last number. Nothing worked…for YEARS. Then one day about a month ago I was so frustrated I started jumping up and down like a mad woman and being obnoxious about the way I counted. And…she stopped on the right number. It was miraculous. But why?

It turns out my kid has a prosody problem…she says all her numbers with the same tone and emphasis usually. Now try doing that yourself right now (no really reader, do this)…count to any number and try to keep your voice exactly the same even on the number you are supposed to stop at. It is hard to stop, isn’t it?  I think it is simply Beth cannot do naturally what most of us can do…inflect her voice on the number where she is supposed to stop counting. Here is a good example where I am holding up cards with numbers on it:

Now we are moving towards counting with counters and stopping. For years I thought she just wanted to fill out ten frames due to some sort of compulsion, but now we are making progress if we work on emphasizing the last number. Here is a video with a magnetic ten frame set  ( and although you cannot see it in the video, there were 10 counters on the table and she stopped counting on her own:


Number Ordering

We tried number ordering exercises with the pocket chart, but even that was too much visual scanning and motor planning for Beth. My friend introduced me to these Lakeshore Learning puzzles for sequencing numbers and letters ( ,, , I was skeptical Beth would be able to do it, but because the motor plan is so easy (all work is 2D, just slide the pieces into place), it was a success. It was nice to know that she can order numbers after all with the right accommodation. In case you are wondering if she is just making the picture…no she isn’t. She doesn’t even look at the picture until the end so it is more like a reward. Referring to a picture while putting pieces of a puzzle together is still very hard for her, even after doing puzzles with her for endless hours.



I am not familiar with the research supporting the need for it, but completing patterns is a common goal on IEPs. I guess it is some indicator of logic ability. Beth failed the patterning portion of the IQ testing for K, because the tester wanted Beth to pattern on a blank piece of paper (she needs at least boxes drawn in for placement), Beth wasn’t interested in the materials, and expressive language issues got in the way.

I have found that she absolutely must have boxes on paper or containers for placement and using very familiar favorite items that she has heard receptively in videos many times is helpful. It is crucial for her to say the items out load and to point to keep her focus and to keep track of where she is. It also helps Beth focus if she is guided to build the initial pattern. It is still hard for her, but it is possible with these accommodations. With more effort, I have been able to get her to pattern non-preferred things like colors and shapes, but getting that expressive language out is a lot harder for her. This Lakeshore Learning Patterning Tray works great ( for patterning manipulatives. I put her patterning tray on her slant board, which helps ease the visual scanning demand and helps with visual attention. In the videos below I used party confetti with her favorite Sesame Street characters and Halloween erasers from the dollar stores (she has a favorite Halloween video with ghost, bat, witch, pumpkin, etc so those words are easy for her). The erasers are great because they are thick and easier to pick up.  These videos show us working through AB patterning, ABC patterning, and missing items within a pattern:


Worksheets (Finally!)

This past summer we moved away from manipulatives and tried the first chapter of Go Math. Go Math is an example of curriculum that has a very nice layout for kids like Beth…not a lot on a page, clear boundaries between sections, and ten frame boxes for counting.  Accommodations would still need to be made if this program was used due to Beth’s language and motor planning/visual scanning challenges. For example, the word problems are too hard for her due to language issues, she would need magnetic counters because she uses a slant board and the counters were sliding everywhere, she would need to circle things rather than fill in or draw squares, she would need to use plain counter blocks instead of snap together blocks, sometimes I have to block off certain sections of the worksheets to help her focus, and I often use a sweeping motion over choices to help her visually scan. Counting with her finger by pointing and then picking up the pencil to write in numbers was a motor planning nightmare. So I prompted her to not put down the pencil and circle items to count them instead. When she writes numbers I try to give her a pass on writing…if it is legible at all I accept it because she tends to get frustrated with handwriting corrections. Here is a clip of a Go Math page:









A Note to Myself 3 Years Ago

Dear Self 3 Years Ago,

You just received Beth’s autism diagnosis and quit work to stay home with her. I know you are depressed and anxious about your little girl’s future. And to be honest, life as you know it will never be the same and things are going to get a whole lot worse before they get better. I don’t envy the road you will walk over the next 3 years, but you will come out the other side a better parent and a stronger and more compassionate person. You will let go the “shoulds” and “what ifs” and finally learn what true acceptance means. To help you on this difficult journey and to ease the path a bit, I have a few tips for you below.

You’re Welcome,

Yourself in 3 Years

  1. What Autism is NOT is Very Important. Contrary to what many believe, these things are not part of the autism diagnosis definition, and in many ways they are more important for understanding Beth and how to help her: low tone, dyspraxia, motor planning impairment, ADHD, anxiety, sensory processing disorder, and visual scanning/discrimination impairment. Look these terms up and study them at length. Several therapists will tell you Beth’s “autistic behaviors” must be ignored or controlled through bribery and they will not look deeper to the core issues. Do your homework and don’t accept that there is no reason for behaviors that get in the way of Beth’s functioning. She is trying to tell you something.
  2. Embrace your sensory kid. Careful observation and supportive parenting will take you a very long way with this sensory kid. It is not about a sensory diet, it is about a sensory lifestyle! Beth experiences her world by her senses in a very unique way, and she seeks out and avoids certain senses. It may help to think of her as still in the exploratory developmental phase in many ways. But don’t underestimate her, because her sensory seeking and avoidance will change often and mature with time. It is also hard for her to use all her senses at once and integration will come slowly, but it will come! 

    Eating Snow

    Eating Snow (Take my advice and just give her a spoon, because this will be the dominant snow activity for a long time.)

  3. Just Do Something. You don’t know where to start and you are afraid to fail, but trust me, dive right in and just do something. Once you start, whether it be a new play idea, an educational session, or an outing, you will find your way and there will great value in the ideas that do not work out as you planned. If Beth resists your attempts to interact with her or teach her something, divide the task or goal into smaller concrete steps or go back to a previous developmental step to work on foundations. Don’t be afraid to put an idea or activity on hold and come back to it. This is not failure, it is giving her time to develop on her own path and you time to process the attempt and come up with new ideas. Also, if Beth shows interest in something, don’t be in a rush to move on to the next level. Just enjoy interacting with her where she is for a while and look for signs of readiness before you try to add more complexity or go onto another developmental goal. For the most part, development will come in very small expansions on familiar ideas.
  4. “Well, at least my kid doesn’t…” Take the advice of Bob Newhart and just stop it with these statements, because most likely she will do these things ( She is not doing it now, but she will bite, kick, scream, meltdown, etc. but luckily for you she eventually grows out of it for the most part (for now, never say never, you still have the teenage years coming). The reasons for the aggression included communication delays, boredom, demand was too high for tasks, and extreme fatigue due to sleep issues. Also, she will be a big time stimmer, especially flapping and repetitive vocalizations in interesting voices. The stims will emerge over time and it shock you at first, but you will grow to accept them and learn how to use them. Her different stims will reveal her inner state and give you nonverbal clues to show when she is happy or uncomfortable (for example, sick, in pain, or needs to have a bowel movement). You will also learn how to use stims to motivate her to do non-preferred things and to help her cope in stressful situations.

    Flap Happy Kid

    Flap Happy Kid

  5. Sleeping. Brace yourself and pass the coffee. You will try melatonin with little success. You will try various locations and beds configurations, such as sleeping on the couch from ages 3-4, in a pack and play and a bed tent at 4, and finally sleeping in a large bed in the middle with several pillows surrounding her to prevent her from hitting walls when she flails her arms in her sleep. Foam board on her bedroom window to block out light and sound and the right noise maker helps. Exercise helps. But the biggest help is time. She will start sleeping much better at 5.
  6. Move It! She will have enormous difficulty moving from point A to B and moving her body. This issue is core, so it must be worked on every day. Music and imitation will be a huge help for her motor planning development. Also, hide her favorite mouthing items (edible toothpaste, floss) in various locations of the house and work from staring at the item a foot away to hiding it in separate rooms and using more and more complex hints. Any movement should be cherished, so welcome large therapy balls into your home, and encourage “traditionally forbidden activities” such as climbing on furniture and  jumping on the couch/bed.

    Yes, you be estatic when you find her hanging onto spindles while standing on the bac of the couch.

    Yes, you be ecstatic when you find her hanging onto spindles while standing on the back of the couch.

  7. Potty Training. Get out the Clorox wipes, because this is going to be a long, messy haul! Even now she struggles with understanding her potty signs and usually runs to the toilet only after the urge is dire. You made a lot of progress in tiny steps (first pee and poop on the little potty in front of the TV, then pee in the toilet but poop on the little potty in front of the TV, then you discovered she relaxes with certain visual stim like the iPad and marble run and used that to relax her before darting off to the big toilet for BMs, and now we are still working on requesting to go potty in public places). Through elimination diet you will learn she is sensitive to soy, almond milk and has lactose intolerance, and elimination or reduction of these foods will make BMs more comfortable for her and reduce the number from 4-5 to 1-2 a day.
  8. Respect the Physical Issues Behind the “Behavior.” Your biggest regret will be that you didn’t have PT and OT come watch the behavioral therapists while they worked with her and while she was at preschool. She can’t sit on the floor and in certain chairs because of low tone, so get her a fully supported chair, give her breaks, and let her stand at a table to work until she is ready to sit. She can’t pay attention to work presented to her because of visual scanning issues, so reduce clutter, use slant boards and recipe book holders, and encourage her to look across the whole field by sweeping across or circling the region she needs to attend to with your hand. She has tremendous difficulty with all motor planning, so reduce or eliminate these barriers, even going so far as to rest her hand on the table in front of a picture when you want her to point because it takes so much effort to raise her arm and then move forward. Because of physical issues, attending to tasks will take enormous effort, so short sessions are a must (at age 5 she is doing 12 minute sessions and uses a visual timer).

    This is where you are headed - distraction free work area, smooth backed chair with full support and foam tape on the floor to prevent chair from slipping, table at a good working height.

    Future work space: distraction free work area, stands for ipads and books to help her read more easily, smooth backed chair with full support and foam tape on the floor to prevent chair from slipping, table at a good working height.

  9. Developmental Trackers Like the VB-Mapp ( are Just Tools, They are NOT… a replacement for common sense, critical thinking, and good teaching. Because of the VB-Mapp, there is a time limit on how long the therapists will give your child to answer questions due to the core belief by behaviorists that taking a long time to answer is a behavioral issue. They will cut off your child’s thinking and feed her answers using errorless teaching, which she will grow to hate because she has slow processing and motor planning issues. You will argue that your child just needs more time, but you will compromise how long to wait, which will be a big regret. The therapists will want to work on all deficits, but use her strengths (naming colors, letters, numbers) or she will lose the skills and her confidence. The VB-Mapp advises that “barriers to learning” are mostly behavioral, which is wrong. Beth needs support due to all the physical challenges stated in number 8 above and it is the reason behind many behavioral “issues.”  Do not let the therapists use the same language with Beth over and over, because she has trouble with motor planning, so when she finally learns a language pattern it has a tendency to get stuck. Be very wary of the goals in the VB-Mapp that have “or” in them, because it will be the cause of missing core issues, such Beth’s face blindness. Also, read the details in the secondary skills tracking list even if it is not required because Beth meets the milestone on the primary list.  Otherwise, things like teaching yes/no will be missed. Fight for putting yes/no on the IEP even if the other therapists do not want to because it will “lead to less words.”  Yes/no is empowering for your child and any language that is empowering must be taught first. There are many other issues you will have with the VB-Mapp, so be wary!
  10. Play Will Come Slowly and Will Be Unique. For the love of God, DO NOT GIVE AWAY HER FAVORITE BABY TOYS AND “STIM” TOYS! She has an emotional attachment to certain toys and she will ask for them when she finally has the words and you will end up buying replacement toys. Let her dump things and set out invitations to play on tables, because it is the only way she can find things with her motor planning issues. Play games where she searches for her favorite edibles among the toys so that she can find where her toys are located. Practice taking toys out and skip clean up until she can manage it. Eventually when some of her sound and spinning stims calm down, you will be able to use them to expand her play. Before she can play, she needs to be able to use her hands. Using her hands is difficult, so incorporate hand use into her favorite activities, like using tools while cooking, squeezing colored seltzer water from condiment bottles into other containers on the light table, opening up containers to get her favorite foods and drinks, flushing toilets to watch the spin, and using a gum ball machine with a twisty ramp dispenser to watch the gum ball spin down. Interactive play will start at 5 with activities like ball play, balloon play, interacting on trampolines, singing songs, and marching while playing instruments, but everything you do with her up until that point is a foundation for future play.
    Turning the (Very Tough) Handle on the Gumball Machine

    Psst! She is motivated by the gum ball spinning down the twisty slide!  Use her spin stims to motivate her!

    Take note when she says "big bubbles" when you blow bubbles for her. She means it, and it is a huge opportunity for expansion of play!

    Take note when she says “big bubbles” while you blow bubbles for her. She means it, and it is literally a huge opportunity for expansion of play!

  11. Dressing. Dressing herself will come very slowly. Start with the things that are easiest for her, then move on. Independent dressing will unfold like this (from what will be mastered first to last): 1. taking everything off, 2. pants on, 3. socks on, 4. underwear on, 5. coat on, 6. shirt on, 7. shoes on (depending on the shoes, some are easier than others). The order is dictated by her motor planning, low tone, and body awareness, which impacts her coordination, balance, and ability to support herself while dressing. Teach her to find the support she needs while dressing (for example, leaning against a wall to put on underwear or sitting on the couch to put on socks).
  12. Find Your Peeps. Your peeps will be found on outings, at special needs music classes, and at special needs events you set up through meetups and closed FB groups. Online support will come from blogging, your Fumbling Thru Autism Facebook page, and the pages of special needs parents with a positive outlook. The most insight about your child will come from people who have autism and blog and/or write about their experiences (Judy Endow, Stephen Shore, Temple Grandin, John Elder Robinson, Daniel Tammet, just to name a few).
  13. Believe in Yourself. You will not believe me when I tell you this, but Beth will hit age 4 and you will decide that whatever many of the therapists are doing with your child is not working out, so you want to try some things on your own. You will decide to homeschool her for preschool at age 4 and Kindergarten. Several people will think you are nuts. But there is nothing wrong with letting your child learn to navigate the world, use her body, integrate her senses, gain more language to express needs, and cope better before she is expected to succeed in academics in a classroom setting. Isn’t that what we do for many young children and why should that be different for the child with delays and uneven development?

    Making letter A bread. Homeschooling is not as scary or crazy as it seems Mom, so relax!

    Making letter A bread. Homeschooling is not as scary or crazy as it seems Mom, so relax!

  14. Forgive yourself. You will get impatient, frustrated, raise your voice, miss cues, expect too much, expect too little, miss things, try things that don’t work for too long, etc. That is life. Forgive yourself, say sorry to your kid, and move on. You guys have work to do and a life to enjoy.

Read a Book to Ya!

“Read a book to ya!” Oh how I loved to hear those words when Beth was around 3 years old. She was of course using my words to request a book, because I would say, “Do you want me to read a book to ya?” Beth loved books starting from when she was very young. We thought it was adorable that one of her first words was “again” while we read to her. She would insist “again” so that we would reread books to her over and over to the point that we were exhausted. We took the “again” as a sign she loved being read to, which she did. But she was also trying to memorize the books, and years later she would show that she could recite them in their entirety.

But I didn’t appreciate the book requests as much as I should have.”Again” and “Read a book to ya!” and her love of books disappeared as the intensive therapy ramped up at about age 3 and my child seemed more disorganized and anxious. Was it the fact that therapists were trying to read to her instead of me, her increase in sensory issues, that she just didn’t want to do it anymore, or something else I didn’t understand?  I honestly didn’t know the whole answer, but this summer I knew we had a big problem. She would not sit to read a book with me. Not a single book. She would not pay attention to the pages. She literally ran away. We were starting Kindergarten homeschooling in the fall, and reading and “discussing” books is a huge part of any K program. How was I going to get this child to read with me again?

Bribing with Edible Toothpaste and Floss

When all else fails and the situation calls for it, I bribe. That will make the Floortimers out there cringe, but I spent more than a year trying to engage the kid in reading naturally, increasing joint attention during looking at pictures, etc. We were nowhere near where we needed to be. So, when all else fails and I don’t know what the heck is going on because she won’t let me get off home base, I bribe. And since she loved edible toothpaste, I started by giving her a little edible toothpaste on her toothbrush after every page and she would chew on the toothbrush as I read. The toothpaste is truly edible and won’t hurt her or upset her stomach in small amounts (look for “edible toothpaste recipes” on Google for more info). Somewhere along the way, kiddo decided she liked mint floss better than the toothpaste and I would give her floss to rub back and forth on her tongue while I read to her. Basically I bribed her for just sitting and attending. After about 1 month, I extended the bribe and it was only needed after each book. And over time, I noticed variability and patterns in her ability to attend while I read to her, which lead to a true understanding of why she had stopped reading with me in the first place.

The Rules of Engagement for Reading

With a lot of observation while reading literally about 100 books to Beth, I came to realize that these are her “rules of engagement” for reading:

  • Asking her questions while reading often backfires and leads to disengagement, so I backed off on the questions at first and focused all efforts on gaining her attention. Initially I asked no questions and now we are up to questions and discussion for about 1-2 books a day.  Because it is hard for her to process spoken word and visuals, I don’t ask questions until a book has been read to her at least 5+ times. When I ask questions, I try to make them mostly open ended (what do you see?), with some specific questions to help guide her to better reading comprehension. I found out that a key comprehension problem for kids with autism is that they pay attention to certain text or pictures at the exclusion of others, so I try to point out other parts of the book that are not her preference while I am reading to her (
  • Books with rhyme hold her attention infinitely better than those without rhyme.
  • Certain illustrations help with attention (usually bold, colorful, and cartoonish).
  • Bigger books are better, because she can see the detail of the illustrations better.
  • She attends better to books that I read to her before diagnosis. It is like she has a strong emotional connection to the pre-diagnosis books.
  • Preferred old books (like the pre-diagnosis books) must be mixed in with non-preferred new books. A ratio of 3 old books to 1 new book worked best. New books must be read repeatedly before she starts attending.
  • To expand her tolerance for longer books and accepting non-preferred books, I read the longer versions of board books that she already loved (e.g., many of the Dr. Seuss books she liked were in board book version and longer version).
  • The place we read makes a huge difference. She attends best lying in bed with me holding the book above us or in her school chair at her study table. My guess is that these positions supports her back completely, so she is able to focus better. Also, attention improves if I use a recipe book holder at the table.
School Work Area

School Work Area (Distraction Free, Smooth Chair with Full Back Support, Foam Tape on Floor Prevents Sliding)

A Fortunate and Sad Realization

One day I read a pre-diagnosis Dr. Seuss book called Wet Pet, Dry Pet, Your Pet, My Pet, which has several condensed versions of rhymes from the longer book One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish. Beth went crazy for it. Asking over and over, “Read about the Yink,” which is a page in the book (in case you are not up on Dr. Seuss, the yink is a cat-like thing, he likes to wink and drink pink ink, of course).

The Yink

The Yink

At about the 100th reading of the Yink, I caught Beth saying something…it was a very slurred and almost unrecognizable phrase. “He likes to wink, he likes to wink, he likes to wink….” I felt ill. She had sad that phrase many times over the past 2 years, but I could never figure out what she was saying. She was, in her own way, remembering the book. And most likely, she wished I would read it to her. But she has problems with titles and with requesting specific books, songs, videos, etc. so her way of asking was to repeat a phrase from the book. But since I didn’t understand her, I never read it to her. The book was buried among the 100s of kids books we have on the shelves, and she has trouble finding books or toys on the shelves due to motor planning issues. It was just so very sad to me that she wanted me to read this book (and there were probably others she wanted me to read to her), but the motor planning and speech issues got in the way. No wonder she got mad if I would start reading a random book to her. She probably had another book in her mind and it was exceedingly frustrating that she couldn’t communicate the request or figure out how to go through the book shelves to locate it. I decided I had to try the extreme to help her locate her favorite books.

Book Empowerment and Independence

More than a year ago, I made a “book choice board” on the iPad, but she didn’t take to it. Maybe it was that I didn’t choose the right books (i.e. pre-diagnosis favorite books), the icons of the covers were not large enough for her to easily distinguish the books and make a choice, and/or she didn’t understand that it was a book request method. I decided I needed an even more obvious way to help Beth request and find her books.

So, this time a put all her pre-diagnosis books, plus a couple of new favorites, on a single shelf and next to the shelf I put up a choice board poster for the books next to the shelf (I made the poster out of pictures I pulled off of Google Images, which is a lot easier than it sounds because pictures of every book cover that ever existed is there).

Choice Board Poster for Book, Books on Shelf Next to Poster

Choice Board Poster for Books, Corresponding Books on a Shelf Next to the Poster

Close Up of Choice Board for Books

Close Up of Choice Board for Books

The printer ink and time downloading images from Google were worth it. After modeling book titles, in no time she was learning the titles of the books and using them to request books. And one day she went upstairs, walked into her room, and started pulling books off the shelf to find a book (she dropped them on her foot at first and I actually had to teach her how to pull them off without hurting her foot, which could be part of the reason she stopped pulling books off the shelf in the first place). Now she will run upstairs and look at her books several times a day. It is so wonderful that she can independently find and look at her favorite books again. 

Bedtime Stories

After about three months we made tremendous progress with reading, and we could finally read at bedtime again for the first time in years. I started to read for at least an hour until she looked tired and then turned off the light, which resulted in Beth trying to get out of bed one last time, eventually whining herself to sleep, and other typical bedtime misery. One night, Beth insisted that I keep reading. So I dimmed the lights and continued reading. Somehow I ended up reading The Cat in the Hat, which is quite long and full of rhymes that flow nicely together. She fell asleep peacefully, which was highly unusual. Every night since then, I read several books to her and end the night by reading “The Cat in the Hat” to her in an increasingly hushed voice while she drifts off to sleep. I sit there in wonder and amazement. Did she just want me to read certain books to her until she went to sleep for all of these years? Is that something we used to do and then we somehow stopped, but she knew she still wanted it and she couldn’t tell me? Is that at least part of why she has been so frustrated at bedtime? Maybe it is those things. Or maybe we just stumbled onto something great while reading together, and it is another reason while the time spent understanding Beth’s reading resistance was well worth the effort.

Homeschooling on the Spectrum, Post #4: The Sunflower Lesson

Beth hates libraries. It could be the lighting, the rows of books that aren’t perfectly placed, the large windows that show her the outside world she would rather be in, past negative experiences with story times, or many other things.  Unfortunately, her hatred of libraries is a bit of an issue since we homeschool and need a lot of books. To combat her library opposition, I launched “Operation Library.” Our mission was to get in, look at books very quickly, pick up a book or two, get out, and, over repeated visits, figure out strategies to help Beth tolerate library visits. During one library tolerance mission, Beth was not doing well, so I grabbed a couple of random books off shelves and escaped the situation as quickly as possible. And in a wonderful stroke of luck, one book I grabbed led to this lesson on sunflowers.

Camille and the Sunflowers

Camille and the Sunflowers ( is one of a series of art-inspired children’s books by author Laurence Anholt ( .  In Camille and the Sunflowers, the author weaved together a story based on Van Gogh’s paintings of The Roulin Family (, one of which was a painting of a little boy Camille, and Van Gogh’s paintings of sunflowers ( I had to boil the story down a bit for Beth because the book was meant for a higher grade level, but it kept her attention because she was attracted to the colorful illustrations and beautiful copies of Van Gogh’s paintings. By chance we have one of Van Gogh’s sunflower paintings near us at the Philadelphia Art Museum.  It was the same museum where I attended a fabulous temporary exhibit in 2001 called Van Gogh: Face to Face (, where I was lucky enough to see all the paintings mentioned in the book first hand. I thought, wouldn’t it be great to teach Beth about about art in a hands on way as preparation for an eventual museum visit? And that thought lead to our first experience in art appreciation (and much more) through a study of sunflowers.

Camille and the Sunflowers

Camille and the Sunflowers

The Hunt for Sunflowers

In an attempt to find sunflowers to study, we visited our local organic farm, Longview Farm and Market (  It is a wonderful organic farm with pick your own flowers, herbs, and fruit.  There is a store full of healthy foods and goods, animals to visit, and a variety of community activities that are offered on the farm throughout the year.

With Beth’s scissors in hand so she could practice her cutting skills on flowers, we made our way to the pick-your-own flower and herb garden.  The sunflowers were mostly dead because we visited so late in the season, but it gave me the opportunity to show Beth the seeds of the sunflower and have her a remove a few. Removing sunflower seeds was a great pincer grasp activity and seeing the seeds triggered another idea for the lesson, growing sunflowers from seeds (more on that later in the post).



Although the sunflowers were dead, there were plenty of other beautiful flowers.  Beth loved to smell and cut the flowers, and liked looking at the bees in the garden.

In the flower and herb garden area, there was a nice sized chicken coup with chickens of all shapes, sizes, and colors.  Beth learned that chickens scratch and peck to find food.  She also learned that their “cluck” or “bok bok” is too loud and sudden for her taste.  Moving on…

Longview Market and Farm has a wonderful natural-looking sand “box” with long-handled rakes, shovels, and hoes. What a fantastic idea! Since Beth hates sitting on the ground to play with sand, this was the perfect set up for her. She liked raking to make lines and pressing lines in the sand with the back of the rake.


We made our way to the market. Beth is enamored with our bathroom scale.  She loves to “look at the O” as she calls it. Which means she hops on our scale repeatedly and watches the dial move and eventually land back on zero. So she was definitely happy to find this large scale outside the farm store.


And inside the store we found sunflowers!  So we picked up a bundle for a gift and for our studies and stood in line to check out, which is generally a challenge for Beth.  But not to worry….


The store has apple cider slushies and cookies (including gluten-free and organic varieties) to help Beth wait in line.


We arranged the flowers in a vase to give to a friend as a housewarming gift, and we kept one sunflower so we could study it.


Sunflower Art

We first made drawings of sunflowers. For some reason, although it is well-known that drawing precedes writing letters (, most milestones charts I have seen for young children with developmental delays only lists drawing circles and lines as goals. Beth has been stuck drawing lines and circles for years and I did not know how to help her move on. The answer for us was to do side-by-side drawings, where I draw my representation of an object (in this case the sunflower) on one side and she draws hers on the other. I do some guiding by demonstrating while I draw my picture, pointing to areas on her page, moving my finger above her page to demonstrate strokes while I use language I know she understands (go around the circle, color the circle, go down, etc.). But Beth’s drawing involved no hand-over-hand and often she was making her own decisions and making purposeful strokes of her own creation. I plan to back off more and more in the guiding over time.


Next we made sunflower paintings like Van Gogh’s in the Camille and the Sunflowers book.  I wanted Beth to control the brush on her own, but without some guidance she would just paint the entire canvas one color.  I decided to use a two-step process, using a template for the circles and then filling in the other details after the circles dried.  We used cans to makes the circles, and I cut both ends of the cans with a can opener (I used this one which does not leave sharp edges  For each circle she made, I asked Beth if she wanted a small, medium, or large can.  When she answered, I gave her the can and she placed the can on the canvas.  I held it in place as she painted the canvas inside the can. This was a great hands-on way to work on the concept of small, medium, and large.




After the circles dried, I had Beth add yellow and orange petals around the circles.  It quickly became clear that dabbing paint or making small brush strokes around the circles was something new and challenging to her, so we practiced dabbing on a separate piece of paper and then returned to finish the paintings. Then I directed her to add the green stems by pointing where to start and instructing her to go “down” with her stroke. The paintings came out remarkably well!



Planting Sunflowers

It was late in the season to plant sunflowers, so I went to a high-end nursery and they had some seeds left (Lowes and many other stores were out of seeds). If you want to plant in a container, make sure to get the smaller sized sunflowers (there are several kinds, we planted the Teddy Bear variety).  My goal was to get something to sprout to show Beth the seed to sprout process.  If we get a sunflower eventually it will be an added bonus!

I had an unused plastic container, so we made holes in the bottom with a drill so that water could drain from the bottom. Beth is usually terrified of drills, so it was a big surprise that she came over to me while I was drilling and wanted to try it.


Next we added the soil and Beth liked ripping the tops off of the bags and scooping the dirt into the container.



But soon she realized it would take a long time to transfer all the dirt, so she started lifting the bag. It was not easy, but she persisted and was able to manipulate the heavy bag and dump its contents, as shown in the picture and video below.


Next we planted the seeds per the directions on the packet. We counted the seeds as we planted.  We covered the seeds, she watered them, then she helped me sweep some. I was shocked at how much she participated and how much she enjoyed it. We had tried gardening the last 2 seasons and we made little progress, but this year it was a success.  Then we watered and waited for a sprout.




From Seed to Sprout Activities

Four days later we saw a sunflower sprout! I remembered a poem from the book Read Aloud Rhymes for the Very Young (, and I read it to her as we looked at her new little sprout.IMG_4982


To reinforce the idea of growing a flower, we read From Seed to Plant by Gail Gibbons ( and did a sequencing cut-paste-color activity (

Sequencing Activity

A Nice Beginning

The sunflower lesson, which I consider our first lesson plan for Kindergarten, really resonated with Beth and it felt effortless and fun. Somehow it just all fell into place and we were able to incorporate nearly all subjects during the process. The successful lesson gives me confidence that we are heading in the right direction in our approach to homeschooling. And what is that approach? I basically teach Beth like I would any other kid, with some minor tweaks to help guide and hold her attention.