Story Props

No matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t get Beth to pay attention to stories beyond a certain level. Like the “Pete the Cat” and “Dr. Seuss” level. If I attempted a reading of a story like Little Red Riding Hood, Tortoise and the Hare, Bear Snores On, or other similar books that were more sophisticated in language and concept, she just seemed to have no interest. I tried verifying she understood each page (classic who, what, where, when, why questioning), simplifying language, re-phrasing it for her, and buying simplified versions of some stories. Still, no interest. What was missing? I wasn’t sure at the time, but I decided to try story props. Many story props (felt board, puppets, play sets, etc.) exist for preschool stories, but they are often hard to find or do not exist for the level-up stories. So making these props was no small feat, but in the end it was worth it.

I understand now, the biggest thing missing for her was inference. The more complicated the story, the more you have to infer what is not on the pages. She was not paying attention because she simply didn’t get it. For example, Bear Snores On and other bear books by Karma Wilson and Jane Chapman. The characters move around to various places but you don’t see them making the journey. On one page of one book a character is in a hole, then he is out the next page. The actual coming out of the hole is not shown. In another book the characters go through a variety of actions to take care of their sick friend bear, but a lot of the actions are implied. Beth needed to see it and do it to understand. Another huge problem with the bear books was the concept that other words or phrases have the same meaning as many other words and phrases in the world. In other words, Beth was not inferring unknown words from the pictures and hints in the other text. Through saying over and over while using the story props, this “means” she finally got the meaning of the word “means” and that there are a lot of words and phrases in the world that mean the same thing. As another example, the Mo Willems Elephant and Piggie books. Beth didn’t know that the characters were talking back and forth until we acted it out. It is essentially an inference problem, because the author never uses “said” or “says” in the books and there were so many back and forth exchanges. The above are just examples of how we can never take for granted that many kids with autism must be specifically taught concepts that those of us without autism and language delays do naturally.

Kids with autism primarily have a communication condition. It is not enough to question them on who, what, where, when, why and then hope they magically connect the pieces, which is unfortunately the approach of most reading programs for kids with autism based on what I saw in Beth’s K classroom and from what other parents have told me. There was not a single puppet or story prop in her K classroom before I pulled Beth out, but there were a lot of flash cards with single words. I strongly feel these kids need to see what is happening to connect ideas, but a lot of people are focused on making short term gains with flash cards because it is easier to collect data, it is less expensive, and it is easier to show progress. But later on, almost all the kids with autism I know in classes like Beth’s get stuck at comprehension. Have we lost the art of story telling? Have we sacrificed teaching comprehension and fostering connection of ideas for basic drills of single ideas in the autism classroom?  I think we should at least ask if this is part of the problem and if more efforts towards teaching comprehension should be introduced earlier in the process.

Below are some samples of story props I have created or bought that really worked to help Beth appreciate and understand these stories. In some cases, these props just added a new appreciation and a deeper understanding of old favorites, like Pete the Cat. In the other cases it was like a light bulb went on for her where there was absolutely no light before. It would take me an eternity to write down how I found or made all these things, but in general…stuffed animals, Folkmanis finger puppets, and figures from Amazon (Toob, Safari, U.S. Toy, Schleich-use half price coupons for Michael and AC Moore craft stores, if an animal doesn’t exist, like a mole, you may have to chop off some body parts and/or use acrylic paint!), felt, painting and cutting up boxes, calico critters / doll house / fairy garden accessories, and finding someone who sews (thank you Judy…the bear quilt was amazing and Pet the Cat’s groovy buttons are a big hit) can get you a long way. If you have specific questions about how I did something please contact me (tammy.lynn.graham@gmail.com). I will add more story props to this post as I make them.

Bear Wants More, Bear Snores On and Other Bear Stories

Bear Wants More

Sample concepts: Bears sleep all winter and wake up hungry and thin in spring, they eat a lot when they wake up, cave and the different names for cave, different forest animal names, decorating, strawberry patch, clover patch, fishing process, bears eat fish and berries, if you eat too much you get too big (and can’t even get back in the cave in this case), picnic is eating outside. You need two bears…one bigger that can’t fit back through the cave door after eating.

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Bear Snores On

Sample concepts: Bears sleep all winter but many other animals don’t, friends were scared when they woke the bear but he was just sad because he missed the party, making popcorn, tea

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Bear’s New Friend

Sample concepts: the new friend owl is shy and hides from new people in a tree and in a hole, misunderstanding shy for someone not liking you, being scared when the owl jumps out, asking “Who?”

 

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Bear Says Thanks

Sample concepts: sharing, having different things one can share, different foods, being thankful

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Bear Feels Sick

Sample concepts: feeling sick, taking care of loved ones (with food, drink, cold cloth, checking fever, worrying), illness can be transferred to others, feeling well

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Bear Feels Scared

I found that after I did the above, I didn’t need the props for this one. But what a great book. Concepts: being lost and scared, having friends come search for you, feeling safe again. This was my favorite book of all of them!

Pete the Cat

Pete the Cat Groovy Buttons

My friend Judy made the shirt and velcro buttons (I had to paint one with acrylic paint to match the color in the story). The doll is from Amazon. She LOVED popping them off. The best part was showing Beth the buttons rolling away.

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Pete the Cat I Love My White Shoes

pete the cat

This Little Folks felt set (purchased from Amazon) is great to show Pete stepping in things, staining his shoes, then having everything wash away when steps in the bucket (add all the layers and then take all the layers off when it washes and it tells the story perfectly).

Elephant and Piggie (Mo Wellims)

There is a Bird on Your Head!, Today I Will Fly!, and Can I Play Too?

Main Concepts: Friendship, being silly, inclusion and acceptance, humor, conversation with a friend

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The Mitten and The Hat (Jan Brett)

The Hat

Sample Concepts: Hanging clothes to dry on a clothes line, naming clothing and animals, teasing others and hurting their feelings, silly (animals wearing clothes)

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The Mitten

Sample Concepts: the concept of squeezing into something and stretching out something, silly (dump the animals out and make a big deal of the sneeze-that makes an impression!), knitting mittens (I used felt, but knitted mittens would be even better for this story…then you could teach making clothes with yarn), easy re-telling of past events (what happened? who stretched out the mitten?)

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In the Tall, Tall Grass and In a Small, Small Pond

Sample concepts: many different names for movements, animal names, where animals live (pond, grass, ant hill), animals eat bugs, berries, and sip flower nectar

In the Tall, Tall Grass

The bat finger puppets (Folkmanis) were a big hit because of the way their wings float.

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In the Small, Small Pond

Good luck finding a crayfish…just use a small lobster.

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The Golden Egg Book

Sample Concepts: Various actions (rolling down a hill-use pillows under a blanket to make a hill, kicking, jumping on, etc), guessing what is inside something, being lonely and making friends

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Rosie’s Walk

Sample concepts: prepositions, navigation, slapstick comedy (the fox is chasing the chicken but hits himself with a rake, falls into a pond, gets covered with flour, lands in hay, upsets a bee hive). The farm play set is from Amazon (Storytime toys) but any farm toy can be used.

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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 (http://www.amazon.com/Visualizing-Verbalizing-Language-Comprehension-Thinking/dp/0945856644/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1382614356&sr=8-1&keywords=nancy+bell+visualization).
  • 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.