Our Talk with Christopher Ulmer of Special Books by Special Kids: A Seriously Not Boring Interview

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My youngest son and I recently had the opportunity to talk via Skype with Christopher Ulmer, aka “Mr. Chris,” of Special Books by Special Kids. Usually Chris interviews other people, so we thought it would be fun to turn the tables and be the ones asking the questions to learn more about him and his students. For those of you who may not know who he is,  Chris is an exceptional education teacher in Florida. His unique and affirming teaching style as well as his extraordinary class of students has captured the hearts of many and become a viral sensation. The first video to gain widespread attention showcased his “compliment time” with the students at the start of each school day, and it was featured first at “The Mighty” and then in an article on ABC News. From there the message spread all over the mainstream media, reaching far beyond the typical “Awareness” circles, and Chris even made an appearance on Rachel Ray’s television show. The messages from Mr. Chris and his students continue to spread all over the internet, and the page has even been mentioned on unexpected sites like MTV, prompting Ashton Kutcher to say, “Mr. Chris, you’re a great teacher.”

Two videos from our conversation are embedded at the bottom of this post. In the first video he talks with my youngest son (his older brother decided not to participate because this isn’t his kind of thing 😉 ). Noodle Dog makes an appearance, there is some Minecraft talk in the middle, and an eyeball crossing contest at the end. Chris described his teaching philosophy and what influenced his decision to become an exceptional education teacher. I was also finally able to ask something I have long wondered about; it seems, when watching the SBSK videos, that teaching in a private school setting allows a level of flexibility in the classroom that wouldn’t be able to occur in a public school setting (for many reasons). He addresses that, as well as whether or not they have any sort of standardized testing. He also recalls an excellent and entertaining musical concert performed by his students, and all the work that went into it. You will have to watch the video to hear the fun story.

Update: here is the short “highlights” version of just the silly parts. 🙂

 

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Autism & Empathy (A LOT of it)

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There is a common misconception that people who have Autism lack empathy. I beg to differ. Autistic people may have difficulty at times understanding the emotions of others around them (honestly, don’t we all?), but that does not mean that they lack empathy. They may just respond to the feelings of others in an unconventional way, and we need to work harder to understand and appreciate those reactions.

My youngest son is Autistic and cares very much about his family and friends. Hugs might be a little too tight or knock you down, but they are meant with every inch of his body. The intensity of his Big Feelings can also cause him to act out at times, and the Little Ninja has needed coaching over the years to learn how to more properly express his empathy. For example, when he was four years old we needed to do some allergy testing on his big brother. It took all the strength of both the nurse and me to hold the Big Ninja down for the blood draw, and he cried and was very upset. That was too much for my tiny vigilante to handle. When we were done my youngest rushed at the legs of the nurse and started swinging, yelling, “You leave my brother alone!” Luckily she was a good sport about it, and was impressed at the passionate way he defended his big brother. I had a talk with him later about finding less physical ways to stand up for people. This is an especially important lesson for the times that he misinterprets a situation.

There are other times that my son feels so intensely for other people that he is overwhelmed by his emotions and doesn’t know what to do with it. Continue reading

What Bill Has to Teach Us

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This is Bill, and Bill is SERIOUSLY Not Boring. He is 50 years old (almost 51!), lives with his sister who is his loving caretaker, and his favorite things are his sister’s homemade cookies, his nieces and nephews, and Reba McEntire. Bill has Down Syndrome, and he has a lot to teach the rest of us about love and enthusiasm. Bill has some BIG feelings, and it is contagious.

I had the privilege of meeting Bill this winter. We were at a chili cookoff at our church, I introduced myself and we started talking. He started telling me about his nieces and nephews (he has their pictures in his wallet and proudly shows them to everyone he meets) and how much he loves kids. He told me that he would like to help and volunteer with the children’s activities at our church. I found it interesting he would mention that to me since I am not involved in the leadership of that ministry. I think now that it was divine intervention. I told him his idea sounded great, and that I would have to talk with his sister and the children’s ministry leadership and I would get back with him.

Then you know what I did? I am shamed to say, not very much. His sister agreed that he could help out and that she could bring him. I mentioned it via text or FB to a couple people involved with the ministry and didn’t receive a response. I don’t think they realized I was asking permission to move forward, OR they didn’t see my message. It was an incredibly busy time of year so I let the issue drop for a couple months. I didn’t want to overstep my bounds, and I knew that helping Bill get involved would take a bit of logistical work. I was worried that people would see that as an inconvenience (as an aside, that is exactly why a lot of families of children with special needs avoid church, because they are afraid their children would be seen as an inconvenience). I should have given more credit to my church and the loving people that are a part of it, and I should have followed through. Thankfully, I was given a second chance to give BILL a chance.  Continue reading

The Top Five Autism-Related Posts from Seriously Not Boring

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Another Autism Awareness/Acceptance/Action month is drawing to a close, and I hope that everyone’s efforts made a difference. This world becomes a better place every time someone new reads about Autism and learns to be more accepting. To close out the month here are this page’s Top Five posts about Autism in the hopes that you might find them helpful. These are the topics that seem to have resonated the most with readers, even years later. I feel honored and overwhelmed that when we share our journey it has the potential to help others.

#5. Autism, Meltdowns, and the Unexpected Kindness of Strangers in a Supermarket. Many years ago, when the Ninjas were very small, we were new to the Autism world and spent a lot of time feeling confused and overwhelmed. A difficult incident happened in a grocery store, but the graciousness and compassion showed to us by the employees there helped us through it. I wrote this piece for the Parents Magazine special needs blog. NOTE: This is a change from the original article that was featured at #5. Because reasons.

#4. The Talk: How I explained my son’s Autism diagnosis to him.

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There is no shame in Autism. When my son was old enough I wanted to explain his unique brain to him in a positive way, because how you do it is incredibly important and can affect a child’s self-image for the rest of their life. I wrote: “… I had to be very careful with my words and how I presented Autism. There is still so much stigma in attached to special needs, or even to simply being different (not in my mind, but society seems to feel otherwise). I didn’t want him to see himself as flawed, or view his diagnosis as restrictive, limiting his expectations of what he could achieve in life. I did not want the truth to be damaging. I wanted it to be illuminative and empowering. I hoped that having knowledge of Autism would improve his understanding of how his brain works and help him be more patient with himself.” A version of this story also appeared on the website The MightyContinue reading

Autism, Meltdowns, and the Unexpected Kindness of Strangers in a Supermarket

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The following is an excerpt of an article I wrote for Parents.com. Note: I do not describe my child’s meltdown in much detail because I feel that would be disrespectful to him. The details I did share were in order to share the importance of kindness, patience, and acceptance.

I have been a parent for over ten years now, and for a large part of those years I have also been an Autism parent. It has been quite the eventful journey; full of twists, turns, and lessons along the way. In my house we call it “Not Boring,” and have come to celebrate my son’s uniqueness. Back when my two boys were small and I was new to the Autism world, however, I spent a lot of time feeling confused and overwhelmed. I wish I could go back in time and reassure that worried mother, “Everything is going to be okay.”

One day in particular stands out in my mind. Many years ago I attempted the ambitious feat of grocery shopping with two small boys. Our trip to Kroger took longer than I would have liked, and the sights and sounds became overwhelming for my youngest. At the time he was pre-verbal, and his lack of ability to communicate seemed to heighten his moments of frustration. At that point I knew that he was facing developmental delays, and suspected Autism, but I had not discovered how to best help him when he became upset. I also had not yet learned all his triggers, and constantly walked around in a state of high alert because I never knew what the day would bring.

We finally finished shopping and approached the checkout counter to pay. I abruptly took a package of rice cakes out of the hands of my youngest son without thinking, and placed them on the conveyor belt. He was surprised and upset, because rice cakes were his favorite food at the time. A scream came out of his mouth and he took his frustration out the object nearest to him: the soft flesh of his older brother. My firstborn started crying, my youngest kept shrieking, and I desperately tried to calm the scene and comfort both children. I soon became completely overwhelmed, and all I could do was press my face against the soft hair of my oldest son and sob. I cried for his hurt, I cried for my own fears, and I cried because it broke my heart to see my youngest baby get so upset. Yet, as disturbing as it was for me, I knew it must be even more terrifying for him to feel so overwhelmed.

So there we stood, immobilized in the middle of the checkout lane… 

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To read the rest of the story please visit the original post, Autism, Meltdowns, and the Unexpected Kindness of Strangers in a Supermarket  at the Parents.com Special-Needs Now blog.

(Image is via Shutterstock and was posted on the original article.) 

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Celebrate what makes you unique! It’s Not Boring. Seriously.