Saturday, July 21, 2007

friendship skills

Allison's experience at Friendship Camp is now just a memory, but a good one. She is already talking about going back next year if the camp is held again.

Each day the staff sent home a letter describing the activities done and the skills taught, and suggesting activities to be done at home. One of the major things the group covered was emotional management, with an interesting five-point scale used to rate how upsetting each child might find a particular thing. The points on the scale were
(1) doesn't bother me
(2) bugs me
(3) makes me nervous
(4) upsets me
(5) I could lose control
The children were given an envelope with dozens of small strips of paper that said things like "getting my hair washed", "a thunderstorm", "having dirty hands", "meeting someone new", "losing a game", "being praised", etc. and they were to put each strip in the pocket that corresponded to how upsetting that thing was to them. They made posters with colours and pictures that expressed each level on the scale. They also learned all kinds of strategies for dealing with things that might upset them. For example, they made a "toolbox", a booklet with things they could do to relax and calm themselves during/after upsetting events. They practiced breathing techniques and even a few yoga poses that could help with relaxation.

One thing to be learned from the above activities is that there is a surprising range in what people find upsetting. Allison said meeting new people did not bother her at all, yet being praised makes her nervous. (We learned long ago that effusive praise is entirely the wrong approach with Allison and can even make her cry; a casual "Hey, it's cool how you did that" or "That's pretty nice writing" is much more effective.)

The children also learned a lot of different strategies for typical social situations:
- how to talk on the phone
- how to break politely into a group that is already involved in conversation
- how to recognize when someone else has something to say or is bored by your monologue
- how close to stand to someone depending on if it's a family member, stranger, etc.
Many of these were taught by the camp staff doing little skits that showed the kids the wrong way to behave, and then asking for suggestions on how to act differently.

It is really amazing that this program is offered for children like Allison. She learned some good practical skills, had a lot of fun, and made some new friends.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Allison's "Friendship Camp"

This is an exciting week for Allison. Every morning she will be attending a Friendship Skills Camp run by the Child Development Centre here in town. This no-cost program is exclusively for children with Asperger Syndrome and high-functioning autism, and this week's camp is just for 8- and 9-year-olds. There are only six children attending, and interestingly enough there is one other girl besides Allison. In terms of children with these disorders, boys outnumber girls by about 4 to 1, so to have two girls in such a small group is wonderful.

I dropped Allison off for her first morning at the camp, held at a local school. Tears came to my eyes as I entered the room and saw this small group of sweet, quirky little people, greeting each other in their awkward ways. The other little girl, whose name is Madison, immediately focused on Allison and said "Hi!" to her with a big smile. When the morning was over and the parents came to pick up their kids, Madison went to her mom and excitedly pointed Allison out, saying, "This is Allison! Her name is Allison!"

The camp is specifically geared to helping children develop friendship-making skills and understanding emotions. Today they did activities like role-playing conversations, colouring pictures according to the feelings depicted, and practicing greetings--not to mention plain old fun on the playground. Allison had a great first morning and is very excited about the rest of the week.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007


I have a friend whom I met back in 1987, when she moved into another room in the house I was living in. She was a first-year student while I had just completed my Master's, but in spite of our difference in age we clicked and became great friends. I haven't seen her since her graduation in 1991 (she moved to southwestern Ontario and then to Alberta), but we've exchanged Christmas cards ever since and although our contact is infrequent I consider her a lifelong friend. She and her husband have always sent out the most beautiful family photos at Christmastime, and it was delightful to get one each year and see them with their first daughter and then, a couple of years later, with their second.

At Christmas 2005 I opened their card with anticipation and found another beautiful picture: of my friend, her husband, and one little girl holding a teddy bear. It took a moment to sink in (literally, "What is wrong with this picture?"), but my friend's note on the card explained it all: earlier that year their younger daughter had died suddenly at age 2 as a result of toxic shock. I cried as I looked again at their faces--serene yet with an expression that showed they knew something most of us do not--and at the teddy bear, which had been their little girl's favourite toy.

This past Christmas my friend's card said that they were expecting another baby in May, and just this week I received a photo and announcement of their new baby daughter, Grace. My friend wrote, "It is so good to feel joy again." They have walked through the valley of the shadow, and they are still moving forward, with grace.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Small hands

Lately we've been immersed in the world of The Lord of the Rings. Rich gave me volumes 1 and 2 on DVD for Christmas, and I just bought volume 3, which we're preparing to watch in one 3 hr 20 min sitting later this week. They are truly spectacular movies which bring to life a very long, complex, detailed book and present it in a form that is easier to grasp yet still true to the original.

I've always found the story very compelling. The core of it is simple: a quiet, peace-loving hobbit named Frodo becomes the possessor of a Ring of Power whose evil master wants to get hold of it and use it to destroy the world of men. Frodo's task is to go to Mount Doom and throw the Ring into the fire so that it will be destroyed. Many different characters--such as elves, dwarves, a good wizard, other hobbits, and various kings--are involved in helping Frodo accomplish his task, while a variety of enemies (hideous Orcs, an evil wizard, and a monstrous spider, just to name a few) threaten his quest. And the enigmatic Gollum--a twisted, creepy, corrupted being whom Frodo needs as a guide to Mount Doom--dogs the travellers' steps and plays a crucial role in the final outcome.

The story teaches many important lessons about life, one of which is that we must all accept and attempt to carry out the task that life has set for us--even if it threatens our comfort. Hobbits like nothing better than to eat and smoke in their cosy holes in the ground, but Frodo must venture forth to accomplish a near-impossible task that he would never have chosen for himself. Another related lesson is that we must accept our station in life, whether high or low. The one who is called to be a king must be one, and not flee his responsibility out of fear or even a false sense of humility. And the one who is called to be a servant--to support and accompany the ring-bearer, for instance, as Sam does--must embrace that role and not try to take on more than he has been given to do.

My favourite line from the book reminds us that seemingly insignificant deeds and roles are very important. The wise elf-king Elrond says,

"The road must be trod, but it will be very hard. And neither strength nor wisdom will carry us far upon it. This quest may be attempted by the weak with as much hope as the strong. Yet such is oft the course of deeds that move the wheels of the world: small hands do them because they must, while the eyes of the great are elsewhere."