Thursday, August 11, 2011

Getting to know Gabe Academically - Gluten and Dairy Free Diet

Even though Gabe was listed as a 5th grader, I wondered where he was academically. I played with him with word cards, numbers, and other concepts. I found that he could name one and some two digit numbers and count, but did not add or subtract without coaching and counters. He could read some kindergarten level words, but hated being asked to do word cards.
I had worked with other slow readers before, but never one that was this far behind. I wondered if I should even 'waste' time trying. Would it be a waste or benefit?
Meanwhile I began to read up on a gluten and dairy free diet. The readings told many stories of those who had tried it and the drastic changes in their lives. This diet was recommended for those with autism. Most readings said that while it did not work for all children, it did work for many. The difference was like day and night. However, a person needed to be strictly on the diet for at least 3 months to know if it would really work.
About 6 weeks after Gabe moved in, we started him on the diet. While reading up on it, we had begun to cut way back on some foods and just plain drop others out of his diet. It was winter time and I cooked big pots of beans, rice and vegetables on the wood burning stove in our house. We would eat this over corn chips. It was cheep, nutritious food. The only problem was that we liked this meal with lots of cheese on top. Cheese was now a no no for Gabe. I insisted that others not eat it in front of him. Because our kitchen is so cold in the winter time, we often eat in the living room near the wood burner. I would get Gabe's food first, and then we would ask the blessing, thanking God for his bounties. Then I would seat Gabe in his spot in the living room while other family members in the kitchen would bury cheese in their beans before coming to the living room.
We often watched Wheel of Fortune while we ate. Gabe had mostly watched videos in the past. Wheel of Fortune threw him for a loop. They say many of the same things each time, but of course the puzzles and contestant interviews vary each time. Gabe tried desperately to memorize it all. He quickly learned to shout letters at the TV. We worked on teaching him not to shout, while encouraging him to go a head and guess. He just shouted.
About 6 weeks into the gluten and dairy free diet, we began to notice that Gabe seemed to be thinking a bit clearer. We were not sure if it was just him getting used to our routines or a real improvement in his abilities. By 3 months, it seemed obvious that he had improved quite a bit, but it was not the day and night experience that we had hoped for. The changes were not drastic, but they were noticed by other relatives and friends who had known him for some time. They encouraged us to keep it up.
Being gluten and dairy free can be challenging. It was almost unbelievable to me the number of foods that have wheat, oats, rye or milk in them. It is in so many processed foods. It also makes eating out or even with friends a challenge.
I learned to carry food along if we were eating somewhere other than home. I found ways to keep appropriate snack in the truck so we would not be caught off guard. This was difficult at first. It is a whole new way of thinking. The crackers, etc that I had kept on hand for my other children were now useless to this situation.
By 3 months into the diet, I decided that Gabe probably could learn to read. He really liked Bible stories and music. I wanted to get away from some of the movies that were his favorites. We were all so tired of some of the lines that he continuously shouted at us. I had limited him to movies only on days that were not school days. Now it was summer and he wanted a movie every day. I did limit him to one movie per day. I wanted him to play outside. I got some DVDs from the local dollar store. They were Bible stories and children's religious music to go with the stories. There were pictures and words. It was set up karaoke style. As the narrator read the story  a red line followed across the words. It was the same for the songs. Since Gabe liked to memorize, I thought that he might also learn some more reading with these. He enjoyed the DVDs, but got mad at me when I tried to show him how they were reading the words. I showed him at various times anyway, until I felt sure that he understood. I didn't point this out every time that he watched them, just sometimes. I wanted him to like the DVDs.
Gabe also had many Bible texts and hymns memorized. People were amazed at how many of them he knew. However, I realized after listening closely to him that he was saying or singing a combination of real and nonsense words. The nonsense words sounded similar to what the real words should have been. It was obvious that he didn't really understand what he was saying. I began to use familiar texts and hymns to teach him to read. At first he was shocked and mad at the 'wrong' words that I was making him say. I pointed out that the words printed were the real words. I did not want to push the fact that he had been wrong all this time. Gabe is so tired of 'getting it wrong'. He wants to be right. I think that is part of why he shouts things. If you say it with enough force, you must be right. As we read, I just continued to point out to him that learning to read helps make sure that you are right. I kept emphasizing  the idea that he could get it right every time with a little practice. "After all, you already know most of it!"
We did not read a lot every day. I tried to read with him one or two days a week. If I tried any more than that, he would just rebel. One thing that we did do almost every day was family worship. The class that he was in at church had Bible study guides for kids (his age - well he was 11 yrs old in with the 7 & 8 yr. old). The Bible study guides have a memory verse for each week. We made him learn to read the memory verse by practicing it at every worship time. At first he didn't like this.Then he began to realize that he really could learn to read these verses. Oral and visual memorization began to come together. The oral had always been there, now the visual was beginning to kick in with it.
Gabe knows many phonics rules. As he practices reading he randomly shouts them out. It is obvious that he does not know how to apply them. It is also obvious that his teachers have really tried to teach him phonics and sounding out new words. At this point I figure that Gabe will be a sight word reader. I will not bother with phonics for him. (Phonics are valuable tools, and I have used them successfully with other students).
Over the period of the next school year (6th grade), Gabe's reading abilities improved to the point of 1.9 by my educated guess. That means that I believe his reading level to be at the end of 1st grade. That is slightly more than one year of improvement in a year. As the following summer progressed, Gabe's reading ability continued to improve.
Interesting to me, was the parent teacher conference near the end of Gabe's 6th grade year. His teachers were not really seeing a big improvement in his reading ability. They were seeing that his math skills had improved the most. Personally, I had not seen any improvement in his math skills. He still needed counters and coaching to do sums up to 10. This is kindergarten level.
This really made me wonder. I would like to be a fly on the classroom wall. Well maybe not a fly. Gabe loves swatting bugs - but something small -you know. Well that can't happen. We'll just keep trying.

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