Ian goes to college part 3 – Drama Class Results

| February 6, 2015

As he begins his second semester of community college, I want to catch everyone up on Ian’s college career to date. Last semester, Ian and I attended College of Marin’s beginning acting class. While we originally discussed transitioning towards independence last semester, we never made the jump. Drama 130 was a great class and a hard class. Ian wanted to give up at times, but he was willing to push through and rise to the challenges. Many times he told me: “This is too hard!” I would respond by telling him, “It’s really hard, but not too hard.” ‘Too hard’ means that you can’t do it, and Ian was doing it.

Ian and SaraThere were parts of Ian’s drama class that he navigated with ease. He was an ace at the warm up exercises and improvisation games. He attended to these tasks with his full focus and with little to no support from me. These tasks demanded attention to multiple variables, observation of social cues, creative thinking, and coordination of movement and vocalization. Each of these elements represents an area of challenge for individuals on the autism spectrum.

Many of the classroom exercises required a combination of these skills, multiplying the difficulty. As an example, the exercise “Red Ball/Blue Ball,” entails the class standing in a circle and passing an imaginary ball. First, the students are asked to visualize a large red beach ball. Students “pass” the imaginary ball by making eye contact with someone in the circle, saying the words “red ball” and miming the throw. The recipient “catches” the ball in accordance with its size and weight and then passes it on to someone else. The group works up to passing four different “balls” of different weight, size and shape. The attention and communication required for this game is incredibly challenging and Ian’s ability to master this activity blew me away. Ian also exhibited a high level of independence when the class was split into pairs to work on exercises and scenes. At first, I stayed near during these exercises, but by the end of the semester, I usually sat in the classroom as he and a classmate walked out into the halls to find a place to work.

On to the areas where Ian needed continued support: By far the hardest part of the class for Ian to independently benefit from was lecture. It is my belief that Ian fell into a pattern of behaving, but not paying attention in high school and possibly before then. It is a pattern of behavior that has been highly functional for him. He understands the expectations of him to remain seated and quiet while the teacher is speaking, but the volume of verbal information, especially when it ranges out of his interest and/or comprehension, does not hold his attention.

Seriously IanFrom his facial expressions and gaze, I imagine him to be running a series of visual movie-like memories from his past, some funny and some distressing. I imagine the teacher’s voice turning into the trombone “wah wah” from the Peanuts. Sometimes a random word or phrase such as “ninja” or “Robin Williams” would catch his attention and he would raise his hand and ask a non-sequitur question. While Ian thrived when paired with a peer, he experienced similar attention difficulties when doing small group work. As with the teacher, his peers’ voices seemed to fade into the background as he entered his private world.

To address these issues, Ian and I created a 5-point scale. Ian found my Incredible 5-point Scale workbook a few months earlier. He was fascinated by it and felt sure that it would be helpful to him. At the time, we used it to make a scale to help him with appropriate greetings. Ian was very actively engaged with creating a scale for classroom engagement/attention levels.

Here’s what we came up with:

Ians 5-point scale

Using this scale, and pointing to the person Ian should be paying attention to, helped him to increase his level of engagement and attention when and where appropriate. We also created a system for Ian to ask for breaks to walk in the hallway and enter his private world. My main goal with this intervention was to increase Ian’s awareness of when he was paying attention and when he was “zoning out”, so that he was in control of the shift instead of passively drifting into the world of his imagination. We also created an excitement scale to remind Ian to use his techniques, such as deep breaths when he was becoming over-stimulated. With the excitement scale, I could make eye contact from across the room and hold up 4 fingers; Ian would then close his eyes, take a deep breath, and ground himself. Doing this minimized the need to walk across the room to him during activities and gave him more responsibility for self-regulation.

IMG_3477Another area in which Ian made excellent progress with support was with the written requirements for the class. The students were asked to write two performance critiques of actors from College of Marin’s plays, and two character analysis papers for the monologues they performed as midterm and final exams. The first part of supporting these assignments was helping to focus Ian’s attention. For both plays, Ian’s teacher helped me chose a character for Ian to pay special attention to. We chose characters with dramatic shifts and personalities. I attended the first play with Ian and Janet attended the second. We drew his attention to the actor he would be writing about as we were watching the play and discussed them immediately following the play. For the character analysis, I focused Ian’s attention by having him highlight dialogue. Together, we created an outline for the papers with prompt sentences. I would then leave Ian to work independently and then circle back in to help. It was a lot of work and a big challenge for Ian, but he stretched to meet the challenge. He showed remarkable diligence and determination and, with support, produced college level writing.

In the end, Ian’s first go at a college class was a success. He needed some support throughout the class, but he also demonstrated the ability to independently tackle some college-level work. He came out of the class with an A and, perhaps more importantly, his monologue performance (the class final) received roaring applause from his classmates, whom he had inevitably charmed and connected with over the course of the semester.


For Ian’s final monologue, he chose a piece from Hunting and Gathering: a comedy about finding your place, by Brooke Berman. In the monologue Ian performed, Astor, (a man in his 20’s), complains in colorful language about the difficulties of finding housing in New York, and about how mothers worry because it is their biologically determined function. (A bit of foreshadowing here…) I will write again soon about Ian’s amazing (and surprising) launch into the spring semester.

Ian goes to college part 2 – His first day

| August 26, 2014

Ian4-8-12Ian is bravely trying out a college class at College of Marin. While it is not a community college in San Francisco complete with dorms, (one of Ian’s current dreams), it is a huge step towards the independent adult life that he is trying to build for himself and that his parents are working to support with all of their hearts. In true Dan and Janet fashion, when they looked at the current programs to support students with disabilities at the local community college and found them lacking, they set out to build something better.  

002Thus I am attending the class with Ian, not only to support him as a student, but to investigate the nature of supporting ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) individuals at the college level. In addition to thinking about balancing Ian’s needs with those of his teacher and classmates, I am going to be doing my best to think about how this support could be scaled up to meet the needs of other ASD students.

Ian with HarpOne of the joys and challenges of working with ASD individuals is the incredible diversity of their skills, talents and needs. During our first day of class, I noticed that Ian’s tendency is to tune out the intense verbal language of the lecture component of the class. While doing this, he is still working hard to stay regulated and to present an outward impression of paying attention. He is quiet and still at his desk and looks toward the teacher as she talks. Asking him questions, prompting him to write down essential concepts and reminding him to pay attention were strategies I tried to increase his level of attendance to the material being presented. I am helped in these efforts by the nature of the class, a drama class which teaches fundamental acting skills. As such, the class is taught by a woman who has a background in acting and who conducts her class in an engaging manor. High levels of affect naturally interest Ian, and prompt him to attend to the material. Another helpful element of the class is that the students tend to only spend small chunks of time on lecture material before being called to their feet and asked to put principles into active practice.

IanJoyDuring the circle exercises of the first day, passing names and gestures around a circle, first methodically and then in a random pattern, Ian displayed a very high level of engagement. He not only “got” the games, he was good at them. Over the course of these exercises, I saw the students’ perception of Ian change. Their attitude shifted from one of curiosity to one of interest, and he was chosen often by his peers to participate. He was good at remembering the names of his peers and who had or had not been already chosen. It was gratifying to see Ian engaging and succeeding. Our only interaction during this period was when he would catch my eye from across the room and I would give him a smile or thumbs-up. This first day showed me three different levels of engagement and motivation that Ian currently possesses. There was a language-based lecture that he needed a high level of support to gain benefit from, a short film sequence and some short monologue performances that Ian watched intently and was able to comment on with very little scaffolding/prompting, and there were the active exercises, which he was able to attend to and participate in without support.

Ian and SaraThe drama exercises can be viewed as intense focused social interactions that follow distinct sets of rules. With these rules in place, Ian was able to have prolonged interactions with his peers, both one-on-one and as a group. This component of the class is important, challenging, and highly motivating for Ian. He is a member of an ensemble. He is having to stretch himself to fulfill his obligation to the ensemble, and some of his peers may be having to stretch their perception of disability in order to fulfill their obligations to him. I find this to be incredibly healthy stretching for all parties.


Mechanical counter made on the ShopBot Part 1

| December 23, 2012

Owen adjusting the ShopBot

We’re loving our new ShopBot, a robotic wood cutting/carving machine. I’ve been looking for projects that highlight the machine’s capabilities.

Matthias Wandel's counter This Wooden counter was designed and made by Matthias Wandel.

Fascinating and exactly what I was looking for. Matthias has examined traditional mechanical counters and explains their workings while designing one in wood. His full write-up shows examples of each aspect of the mechanism.

Matthias makes all his wood gears using a bandsaw. However, he designs his gears using a program he wrote and comments on the ShopBot forums confirmed that the output of this software works in the PartWorks program.

Confused yet? So was I. It was time to start working this process methodically.

First I bought Matthias’s plans. At $12 I feel these are an excellent value and I strongly recommend that others purchase these plans if you are interested in this project.

I found one page that had two gears I thought would make a good start on the learning curve.

First gears

First I wanted to make the 20-tooth large gear and the 8-tooth smaller gear. I bought Matthias’s Gear Template Generator program for $26. After a bit of experimenting with the various parameters I had a set of gears that were the same size and shape as the those in the counter plans.

Gear template generator

Next I exported these gears in DXF format which can be imported into PartWorks.

PartWorks is a program supplied with the ShopBot and it has two functions: manipulation of drawings, and conversion of drawings into cutting instructions that can be read and executed by the ShopBot.

Importing the gear drawings was seamless and some checking confirmed that a standard 1/4-inch cutting bit would be able to cut the gears with almost no loss in curve detail.

PartWorks gear imported from template generator

Next I generated a cutting path and used PartWorks preview cutting feature to confirm it was doing what I intended.

PartWorks cut preview

Time to cut!

I did one “air cut” where you have the machine move through the cut but in the air above the wood. This allows you to confirm that the movements look as you expect and stay within the range you expect.

I set up some 1/2-inch birch plywood (note that I used four spring clamps, you can only see two in the pictures), calibrated the ShopBot and started the cut.

Cutting gears in plywood on the ShopBot

Oops One mistake was that I only used two small remainder-tabs on the smaller gear. it needed more so when the ShopBot moved to cut the center hole the small gear broke loose and rattled on the bit making a large rough center hole.

Little errors like this are why you test!





Fresh from the ShopBot

Other than the enlarged center hole, the gears look and work great. After a little sanding, I have my first two gears.

Sanded gears

Over the next few weeks I’ll convert Matthias’s counter plans into a format usable by the ShopBot and proceed to make the parts.

Puppets and Personality

| February 1, 2012

When Dan and Janet approached Melissa and me about potentially teaching a puppet class, I was excited and apprehensive at once.

Maya and Steven“What if the students think puppets are lame?”

“What if they get bored?”

“How will we get them to be expressive without unintentionally directing them into something they are not?”

This last question was the most daunting. I have been teaching for five years and inevitably students will copy exactly what you do in hopes of pleasing you. I will admit now, however, this should have been the last thing on my mind. From day one all four young adults have come to Saturday mornings engaged, motivated and most of all true to themselves.

In being so individually self-expressive, we have all learned incredible things about each person. Be it an affinity for Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s musicals, a childhood love of Disney films or Super Mario Bros., and hilarious social commentary; these young aspies are passionate, creative and expressive.

First batch of puppetsAfter revealing these facts about themselves something more amazing happened than sewing, gluing, or bedazzling; genuine social interaction that was unprompted, naturally rhythmic and challenging for even a cunning linguist like me!

In these lunch time conversations they have beautifully navigated topics from pop culture references, Aspergers humor, and social interpretation, critical thinking about literature, all the way to cartoon Batman versus live action Batman.
(Holey social diversity, Batman!)

Lucy and CourtenayAs a person who grew up with Aspergers and experienced so many awkward lunch conversations that left me confused, hurt and withdrawn, seeing this blooming of social skills brings tears to my eyes, and a hope in my heart that more people like these students and me can have an Autistry experience just once and feel what it’s like to be understood, heard and appreciated for our uniqueness.

Steven, Courtenay and Melissa
Peter, Steven and Courtenay

Five Things You Didn’t Know About Me

| January 2, 2012

Many years ago Jeff Atwood (Coding Horror) graciously invited me to share in his Five Things You Didn’t Know About [Jeff Atwood] (and [his] office) post. I’m reposting it on this blog since Autistry is very much my life now.

I too have been humbled and impressed by the other people’s stories in the Five Things meme so here are mine:

1. I am baffled by other people’s fascination with professional sports.

I can identify with playing a sport – I just cannot understand the motivation behind the activity and entire economies driven by watching, talking, and writing about sports. That a city cares whether or not it has a football team and whether they have a nice stadium when at the same time its schools suck makes no sense to me. That a soccer fan needs to throw a beer bottle at someone who does not like their team makes no sense to me.

2. My family set me up to meet a girl they thought I’d like – and it worked.

I met my wife Janet at a family Thanksgiving dinner after months of my family telling me “oh, we want you to meet this girl we think you’ll like.” We’ve been together since that day in 1987.

3. I am an Astrophysicist by education.

My career in software was a profitable side-effect. In school I was interested in everything and focusing on one thing to get a degree was a challenge. Science seemed to be a recurring interest and my employer at the time (Hewlett-Packard) would pay tuition in that area so I chose to major in physics. After my BS I changed schools to work on a Masters. I was at Cal. State Northridge and they had a world class solar observatory and the astronomers were nice to work with so my M.S. in Physics was based on research into the solar magnetic field structure’s relationship with gas brightness and velocity. For my Ph.D. I wanted to work on something other than solar astronomy so amongst the multitude of choices I had (I think it was two) I joined the astronomy department at Indiana University, Bloomington. I was there five and a half years and finished my coursework, my Physics and Astronomy Ph.D. qualifying exams, and made good progress on my dissertation research. However, family and financial pressures precluded my staying the extra one or two years it would have taken to complete my Ph.D so I left IU with a “thank you for playing” Masters in Astronomy. In the mean time I had picked up good programming skills that people were very interested in paying me for.

4. I am an artist by inclination.

My family is populated mainly by performing artists and musicians. Throughout my life I have built things with my hands and the design and construction of structures of fantasy remains my hobby. I’ve focused on model railroading but I also draw and build other 3D art forms. The artist in me determines whether I’m interested in a project: if there’s room for creativity I’m interested. If you just need me to turn the crank, I’d rather be digging ditches.

5. I’m a recovering Aspie (link)

This might be something you already know. In which case my not realizing you know is a demonstration that I have Asperger’s Syndrome. That’s an Aspie joke.

I was not diagnosed until I was in my 30s. I had always known I had to work especially hard at things that appear easy to people around me and all my life I have been known as “really smart – but weird.” It has been really helpful to have a diagnosis. It hasn’t changed anything I do but it has helped me feel vastly better about the coping mechanisms I employ. I still have most of the traditional problems Asperger’s deal with. Let’s face it, most good software developers are what we call “on the spectrum” so I’ve always fit in really well in good development organizations. However, unenlightened employers almost invariably feel I’m stubborn and arrogant when I’m actually very shy and I strive very hard to be a nice person. As far as being stubborn, I like to think I mitigate it by usually being right (although I now know it usually doesn’t matter that you’re right, I’m still naïve enough to be surprised). Fortunately, I’ve had enough really good employment experiences over the years to be comfortable with what part is me and what part is them.

In my fourth grade class we had a two day workshop put on by representatives from NASA. The Space Race was big in American life at that point. The activity was a simulated mission to Mars with the class divided into mission control and crews of two ships traveling together. On the morning of the first day we were informed that one of the ships had crashed on the surface of Mars and was unable to make the return flight. I was in charge of life support on one of the ships. In a few minutes I provided a solution with charts and resource burn-down graphs. By doing that I effectively ruined the next day and a half of the activity for the whole class.

Soon, after days of tests and interviews I spent less and less time in my regular class and starting in 5th grade was moved to a special class with a only six students (2 each in 4th, 5th, and 6th grades) and told I could study whatever I wanted. I studied the history of transportation, astronomy, puppet theater, building geometric shapes out of manila folders, whatever my interests wandered to. As a class we regularly left school and took a bus downtown to get books out of the San Francisco main branch library as needed since we exhausted the resources of the school library after a couple weeks.

For the next three years I was in the San Francisco schools I never sat in a regular classroom and had the most fun I ever had in school (until graduate school). Every now and then someone would stop by with a textbook and say something like “Dan, you really need to learn some math. Work these chapters, please?” A few days later I’d hand in the work and could go back to following my interests.

When I was middle-school age I moved away from San Francisco. High school and college were much harder. Many teachers mistook my shyness (silence) and inability to flow with the program as stupidity. They would put me in remedial reading one week and only to return me to “A track” (college prep) the next after demonstrating reading over 1200 words per minute (as high as their machine could go). I graduated high school with a D-plus GPA but nearly maxed out my SATs. Only in graduate school and when working on a Ph.D. in astrophysics was I having fun in school again.

I’m a former United States Marine. That probably should make six things you didn’t know about me. I put it here in the Asperger’s portion because many of my most effective coping mechanisms were learned during training in the Corps and I’ll always be grateful for that. I also learned how to get shoes REALLY shiny.