17 different women, 36 crazy children, 0 babies in utero
Adventures, Advice and Questions from a group of Mormon women who met in Queens, NY and have now scattered all over the place.

Monday, April 09, 2007

From the Tales Inbox: How Do I Help Tommy?

Today in primary a mom and her son came into my Sunbeam class. The first thing that entered my mind was "Another 3 yr old! I can't handle any more! There's already seven of them and my team teacher is being put on bead rest because she's prego with twins. I cannot handle anymore."

Then I noticed little Tommy. First his eyes, big and blue. Second...something isn't right, I'm not sure what. I tell Tommy's mom hello, introduce myself and welcome her and Tommy to class. I am new to the ward and have never met Tommy's mom or never even knew Tommy was in our class. The other children ignore Tommy and his mom at first but once they notice Tommy is wearing a diaper, drinking from a bottle and laying on the floor humming, they start to stare. I start to cry.

On our way to singing time Tommy's mom says goodbye and starts to leave with Tommy. I offer to take him to primary with the class. "It's okay, he has to be carried most of the time" his mom says.

She continues to tell me that he has never been to primary before because none of the teachers have offered. They don't understand. And it's a lot of work taking care of him. I didn't know how to respond.

"I'll be okay" I assure her, not really knowing if I will. I really have NO idea what is wrong with him, but how hard can it be? It's just 10 minutes of singing. She concedes and I carry a BIG 3 yr old to singing time where he LOVES to hear the piano. We get him a chair and sit right next to the pianist. He just stares and her fingers on the keys while she is playing. When she stops playing, he starts humming and walking around and then pounds on the piano himself.

I get nervous, is this ok? Is he bothering others with his playing?? I look around and see his mom with a worried look on her face. The pianist tells him to play, and tells me the story...Tommy is extremely autistic. He is actually 5 years old (which explains his size) and has younger twin brothers that are autistic too. His mom has only brought them to church a couple of times. Tommy has never been to primary or singing time. They don't get out much. It's too hard for her.

We sit by the piano and he plays along with her to "I am a Child of God." I look at his mom watching from the doorway and she is smiling. Tommy is relaxed. I start to cry more. It's sad to think he never been to singing time before when he LOVES music so much. And I can't imagine the heartache his mother must go through trying to care for her children never feeling like she can get a break.

I want Tommy to come back to Primary. I want him to listen to the music. Most of all I want others to understand that he is a Child of God. How do I help the other kids understand Tommy? How do I teach an autistic boy? How do I let his mother know that he is needed, wanted, and safe in Primary? How do I help??



  • Once my specific calling was to be the "aide" to a sunbeam who had developmental delays. I could help structure the class for him, follow him around, provide one-on-one, whild the other teachers (a married couple) concentrated on keeping order with the other six kids. Talk to the primary president about calling such an assistant -- atschool, Tommy probably has an aide or assistant who helps; such a set-up in primary wouldl be comforting to him, helpful to you, and probably a god-send to mom.
    posted by Blogger Deborah at 4/09/2007 10:40:00 AM  

  • I think getting some help would be great, weather that be an aid to just focus on him or another teacher in there. It might be good to ask the mother to come in and explain to the kids what Tommy has and what that means on their level. I think the more than understand the more accepting they are. I also think the more they are surrounded by it the comfortable they'll get. We have an assisted living home in our ward with men with disabilities and I think it is great for us as a ward and for the kids especially to be surrounded by that. Don't be afraid to talk to the mother and see what works and doesn't work with him, what you need to be aware of, just get informed. I think parents don't mind answering questions, people don't enough, they just stare and assume. I think asking questions can show your concern and love and wanting to serve him the best. Stick to your feelings and let the holy ghost guide you and you'll be fine!
    posted by Blogger Erin at 4/09/2007 11:15:00 AM  

  • Also if she has three autistic children she needs serious home help and tons of ABA therapy for all of them.

    Seriously if this woman is a member of your ward you need to get the ward organized to help her. Good ABA can cost a lot of money but it can also dramatically change lives. These kids are minds and emotions trapped inside bodys that experience life differently but they needs the same love and attention. Mothers burn out and young mothers, as most mormon's are, don't know how to ask for help or where to go to get it.
    posted by Anonymous Anonymous at 4/09/2007 12:16:00 PM  

  • you'll probably need an assistant to be dedicated to helping him, there no way you can handle the rest of the class and do justice to his needs. then the mom, and you and that asisant need to meet and learn all you can about how to help him. what does he reason to, what clams him, when is he at his best, how does he learn, how can you help him learn when to sit, when to sing, etc. I bet with the proper support in your class and in the nursery, she'd be glad to come to church more, knowing her kids were in good hands. She could actually have a break!

    My kiddo is higher functioning than that, but still he's needed an adult dedicated to helping him behave and pay attention. usually it's been the teacher's husband. but in some wards other assistants are called. especially when a ward member already has experience teaching kids with autism. and even then, we have issues- just because he's managed to be present and behave during the block doesn't mean he actually understood or learned anything. So we're trying to get it to the next level now!

    Lastly, Anonymous might be right- you may have found a member with huge needs who slipped off the ward's radar but who ought to be getting relief at home and help- if she needs it- dealing with their various medical/educational/therapeutic needs. Or maybe it's under control.
    posted by Blogger cchrissyy at 4/09/2007 12:55:00 PM  

  • Jessie,

    Thank you for writing this post! And thank you for being such an amazing primary teacher! My heart totally goes out to this woman. I have an autistic 4-year old who is higher functioning than Tommy... but still exhausts and overwhelms me. I can't imagine how parents with multiple autistic kids handle it. I really can't.

    Knowing way more than I ever wanted to know on the subject of autism, I agree with all of the suggestions thus far. Mostly I agree that the ward NEEDS to step in and help this poor woman. She is living moment to moment with these kids....just trying to survive each day, I imagine. She is probably to busy/overwhelmed/ shellshocked to ask for help and to even figure out what that help would entail (at least I would be).

    Here are some more ideas of what she probably needs:

    *I agree with the special aide in primary (and in nursery for the twins). In our new ward, I attend primary with my son and act as his aide. He is doing pretty well now, and I'm getting up the nerve to ask for someone else to be called to help him so I can actually meet someone...anyone in our ward!

    *Respite care. Either by ward members or even helping her find an agency that will provide...some counties will pick up the tab.

    *Consistent visiting teachers. I can't imagine how lonely and isolated she must feel caring for these kids all day.

    *Domestic help. An ocasional meal, housecleaning, running errands for her.

    *Information. Someone willing to help her find the resources she is entitled to (ie) speech therapy, ABA, occupational therapy and maybe even lobby in her behalf. Also, someone willing to share the current research on autism (it changes quickly these days) in a non-overwhelming manner. The first year of my son's diagnosis, every time I would get off the phone after trying to find resources for him, I would just bawl. I was a nervous breakdown ready to happen.

    Please let us know how things are going!
    posted by Blogger Jen at 4/09/2007 01:02:00 PM  

  • Ask the Primary Pres (and, if that doesn't work, go straight to the bishop) because aids for each of these children so they can attend Primary should be the number one staffing concern of your ENTIRE ward. What would Jesus do, you know?
    posted by Blogger Julie M. Smith at 4/09/2007 05:13:00 PM  

  • I agree with everyone else that a personal aid for the child should be "called". Whether it is you and they call another teacher or you continue as teacher and they call someone else, you might be able to voice your preference and encourage your primary pres and bishop to take care of it as soon as possible.

    Then, once that is in place, it might take some calls to the mother to let her know that everyone in primary is anxious to see Tommy again. If she only comes once in a blue moon, who knows when you'll see her again without a little prodding.

    I also think being frank with the children about Tommy and his needs (in language they can understand) would be the best. Children that young are usually very open to befriend other children once they realize they are needed. And as you learn how to interact with Tommy, you can help the children learn too.

    This mom is very lucky to finally have someone who is sensitive enough to want to make church life better for her and Tommy.
    posted by Blogger TftCarrie at 4/09/2007 08:33:00 PM  

  • Bless you for being sensitive and willing to help. My 5-year-old has his own aide in Primary -- what a wonderful thinng it is for him and for us.
    posted by Anonymous Anonymous at 4/09/2007 09:23:00 PM  

  • Having had experience with a variety of autistic kids in high school, and only had one special needs kid in primary class, the only advice I have is regarding the children in the class and their acceptance of him. They are watching YOUR REACTION to him so closely, and at this young age they will take a lot of cues from you. When I had my special needs kids, the class was about 7, and I happened to have my much younger brother as a student. I asked him to befriend the special needs boy, and he willingingly did, and all the other kids followed suit...it was beautiful.
    posted by Blogger Kage at 4/10/2007 05:23:00 AM  

  • First Jessie, you are doing a great job and truly magnifying your calling. I second all of the great advice here about having a dedicated "aide" for Tommy in class.

    I taught 7 Sunbeams for awhile last year; one of them was special needs. He hadn't been officially diagnosed with anything yet (it's hard with a 4 year old) but clearly had needs that went above and beyond the norm. There were two of us teaching the class, one to teach the lesson/administer crowd control and one specicially designated to work with "J". A third person was eventually called, a man (husband of the primary president) who would step in when things got out of hand (which was every other week). Having that male presense for this little boy was a godsend - it was just what he needed. His parents were completely burnt out and unable/sometimes unwilling to help (which is understandable - they deal with it the other 6 1/2 days a week) but we had a good team for him and I think it helped.

    You're doing an amazing job with Tommy.
    posted by Blogger chloe at 4/10/2007 08:25:00 AM  

  • Hi Jessie,

    I am not a mother but I am a music teacher. I have had a variety of different levels of autism in my classes over the years. Most of the time I never had teacher aides in the classroom with me because the school was either poorly funded or I was concidered "not a REAL teacher who doesn't need help". So I've had to try a variety of techniques to help the students I've had.

    One of the biggest things that has helped me is repitition!!! Autistic kids do SO well with the same EXACT schedule and same EXACT activities everyday. Now I know this isn't always possible, but the format of my classes are the same routine.

    Once he starts coming to your class more, (I would encourage you to tell his mom to keep him coming - I KNOW it's VERY hard on you but in time it WILL get better!) he will figure out the routine and schedule of what you do all day. Also, the rest of your kids WILL ACCEPT him!!! Kids are SO resilliant (sp?) when there are differences between them. They will accept his disability and probably bend over backwards to help you out. They will probably become VERY protective over him as well and want to do as much as they can fo him.

    As for the music part - for now I would say just have him experiment with everything that he wants to. The more he comes to class an the more he gets used to everything then you can start setting boundaries to what he can and can not do (ie - pounding on the piano). Give him simple percussion instruments such as a small hand drum or rhythm sticks to play when the class is singing. help him to beat the instrument in time with the song being played - things of that nature.

    I hope this helps a little bit. Don't give up! I KNOW you'll be frustrated and tired but you're doing a GREAT thing! If all else fails trust your instincts!! :)
    posted by Anonymous Anonymous at 4/10/2007 06:02:00 PM  

  • I'm a little late to the game in seeing this post but. . .

    We have 5 kids in our primary that are autistic and one with cerebral palsy. These children absolutely belong in primary and love it. It is definitely a struggle some days, but I know that they need to be there.

    I agree, you need an aide (anyone with 7 sunbeams needs a helper)!

    As far as talking with the other kids about it, we started with the teachers. I'm sure he's not the only one in your whole primary with some developmental, or emotional delays. We had a special primary inservice with an autism specialist to help us understand a little more of what they're going through. We also invited the parents to come and talk with us about their child. We also had a special sharing time where we read a book (I'm sure you can ask the mother, or the library) about an autistic boy. We also had the singing teacher teach them and sing with them the "I'll walk with you" song.

    Most of our autistic children are 'high-functioning' but our boy with cerebral palsy isn't. But you can just see on his face how much he loves to be there, especially for music.

    It sounds like music is obviously a love for this little boy. You need to be able to use that to have him feel the spirit and feel loved there.

    I'd start with the presidency and maybe have them make a home visit with her to see how they can best help to teach these children, and probably have the RS meet too.

    Just let the spirit guide you and it'll be fine. Not always easy, but worth it.
    posted by Blogger wendysue at 4/11/2007 07:23:00 AM  

  • Thank you so much for all your your advice and encouragement. I'm meeting with the bishop and primary pres this weekend. I'll keep you all informed. If anyone has any other advice, I would appreciate it. Thanks!!
    (& Tommy)
    posted by Anonymous Jessie at 4/13/2007 07:47:00 AM  

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