How Old is Hallie?

Lilypie Fifth Birthday tickers

How Old is Lea?

Lilypie Second Birthday tickers

Monday, January 31, 2011

Storm of the Week Club

Note to Mother Nature:  I did not sign up as a member of this club and I am demanding a refund of my dues and a rapid transition to 50ยบ and sunny outside weather!

Here in the North East, we seem to be stuck in a weather pattern that is bringing us some variation of snow, sleet, ice, or freezing rain at least once a week and usually on a Tuesday or Thursday.  Since I teach on Tuesdays and Thursdays, this is mucking up my syllabus (I haven't even gotten to know the names of my students yet!) and making me extremely cranky.  Gone are the days when I used to sit by the window wishing and hoping for a nice snow storm that would get my out of a test I had to take (I'd engage in prayer and bargaining with Mother Nature until about 9:00pm every potentially stormy winter night and then buckle down and study for 2 hours when my prayers did not work).

Instead, I read the scary accuweather blogs and forums obsessively, hoping that they are the bearers of happy tidings that a snow event will narrowly miss the corridor between Philly and Lancaster that is the site of my commute and life. 

Alas, they never do, do they?

Last week's storm brought us this:

Oddly enough, we were not the only ones taking pictures at night from our front door.  Our neighbor across the street was doing the same thing.

That was the amount of snow that we had by about midnight on Wednesday into Thursday.  We got about 2 to 3 inches an hour that evening, so by the morning we had an impressive 15+ inches of snow on the ground (from just this one storm). 

This is what Philly's Washington Square looked like on Thursday:

What's not easy to tell from these photos is that we also had a pretty impressive coating of ice underneath all of that snow.  We had gotten a few inches (perhaps 3, total) of snow on Wednesday morning.  This was then followed up with some heavy sleet and freezing rain.  All of that froze and turned into a sheet of ice that was extremely difficult to remove even when one tried hard to do so.  Not that everyone did, of course.  I wonder what kind of revenue stream the city of Philadelphia would have were the cops to actually issue those $50 tickets they threaten to give out to anyone who fails to clear a 3-foot-wide path in front of their property.    It's also amazing to me how bad the side streets are in our neighborhood (which is just south of the busy Center City district).  Even streets that typically are very heavily trafficked are icy, tire-rutted messes.  Lancaster (which appears to have been spared the freezing rain of last week's storm) is in much better shape than Philly.

Hallie was extremely perturbed by the sound of the ice pellets dinging on the house.  She couldn't make sense of the noise.  It seemed to her that snow was falling from the sky but it sounded nothing like snow at all. I finally convinced her that these were tiny little ice cubes bouncing off of our house.  At bedtime on Wednesday she asked Sharon if she could look out the window one last time to see the ice.  I think she was mightily confused when Sharon told her that it was snowing again, not icing.

While no big fan of the winter weather, Lea is a huge fan of snowmen.  She was thrilled by the Frosty that we built in our backyard right after the Boxing Day snowstorm.  But that Frosty did not last terribly long.  His disappearance saddened Lea, who has mournfully exclaimed each and every day since then (and often more than once):  "Where's Frosty?  Frosty melted!"

She would have enjoyed seeing the one that was built quite quickly in the middle of Washington Square Park on Thursday:

Alas, chief snowman technician (AKA Sharon) had to work on Thursday and Friday so we weren't able to get out and build Son of Frosty until Saturday.   But never fear; Thursday's snowfall was still with us by the weekend.  So on Saturday Sharon got to work.  This time around the snow was perfect for forming snowmen and Son of Frosty came out looking quite grand:

I think the juxtaposition of Frosty and our residual summer gear is hilarious.  I'm hoping that posing a snowman with a beach ball, hula hoop, and sand bucket will somehow act as a harbinger of warm, pleasant weather.  

Meanwhile, we brace for yet another event (this one seems to be destined to start as snow, morph into ice and freezing rain, and maybe end as all rain, which will be followed by a major Arctic cold snap and yet more snow.  Holy Snow Squall Bat Man!

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Snowy Day

Philadelphia got about six inches of snow last night into today and, after our experience last winter (which featured snow totals in excess of 60 inches), everyone in the city overreacts to the mere mention of the word 'snow.'  The stores were picked clean (and crazy); residents (including myself) were gearing up for snow by mid-morning on Tuesday (and were disappointed by the fact that no snow had fallen by 6:00pm); the city declared a state of emergency (which was excessive) and had sent out fleets of trucks outfitted with plows and salting supplies to pre-treat the roads and prepare for the storm (which is a good thing); and numerous schools decided to close preemptively.  By morning there was snow on the ground and the Philadelphia School District shut down for the day (but Hallie's school was open; sadly, since she doesn't go in until the afternoon on Wednesday, she did not get to play in the yard with all of her friends who enjoyed the soft powder). 

But never mind that; we made our own fun.  Around about 11:00am, I got the kids bundled into their snow suits and grabbed the plastic sled we purchased last winter and we headed out into the elements.  We ran into our next door neighbor's girls who were hanging out shoveling the last bits of snow from the walk in front of their house and they and their nanny and their nanny's boyfriend (who graciously pulled the sled for them) traipsed down the block to the playground.

Amazingly, no one else was playing there so our girls had it all to themselves.  They made good use of it, too.

Hallie and Karina had a blast being pulled through the snow:

Ariana loved it too, but Lea was less convinced of the charms of being out in the snow.  She wiped out on the sled once (which no doubt brought back memories of eating snow when she was on the sled last winter) and didn't really relish getting the stuff on herself.  (This is also how she feels about sand, which is not terribly surprising).  But she had a few good (fairly slow) pulls through the playground in spite of this.

Hallie and Karina soon discovered the charm of snow sliding.  It was a lot of fun to race down the slide and land in a big fluffy pile of snow at the bottom:

Lea was not so sure that this was quite as much fun as her sister suggested it would be:

Hallie and Karina also made snow angels:

Here's Hallie's perfect angel:

And speaking of perfect, Hallie's vocal cord surgery went swimmingly well on Monday.  She is working on yet another cold (which she did not pick up at CHOP; its origins are probably to be found in the epidemiological swampland of her preschool) so it's hard to tell if she has her full voice right now, but it's definitely easier to hear her.  And interestingly enough, she seems much more interested in speaking, and speaking in longer and more complicated and assertive phrases, than she was before the surgery.  We're not sure if she finds it more comfortable to speak (since she needs to strain less to be heard), or is aware that people can hear her better, or is just more confident, but our nanny and Hallie's teachers both mentioned this to us.  And we can definitely hear her better and don't have to walk up to her and ask her to repeat what she's saying a million times over.  She still does not have a full voice, and there's still a hoarse quality to it, but we are very happy that we did this surgery and, all things being equal, we will likely do a more permanent version of this some time this spring (the bulking should last between a year and two years before the medium gets reabsorbed, in contrast to the 3 months or so that this injection will buy us).  Anyway, I will try to capture Hallie's 'new' voice on tape and upload it at some point when she is over this cold.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

A Major Milestone

Hallie hit a major milestone today:  for the first time ever, she expressed an interest in baking with me.

Cooking is something I have long look forward to doing with the girls.  Way back when Sharon was pregnant with the twins, I used to walk around talking about how we'd hold 'clinics' in our kitchen where I'd teach them all about spices and how to make flavors 'marry'.  We could have 'spice of the week' weeks and 'guess the ingredient' games and do other fun stuff like that.  And this, of course, would be part of my special time with the kids since I love to cook and Sharon, to put it mildly, does not.  Well, actually, that's not necessarily the case:  she has no idea whether she likes to cook because she doesn't cook at all.  When I first met her she literally had the following in her fridge and cupboard:  salt (which she enjoys more than your average individual does); sugar (purchased for her by someone who wanted to add some to a cup of tea or coffee); Lays potato chips and cheddar cheese (eaten together as a dietary staple); and a stick of butter.  So living with me has been both incredibly frustrating (we have a million things in our fridge and tiny kitchen cabinets and this array is ever expanding) and yet delicious (I hope) since I can whip up a fairly decent gourmet meal at a moment's notice.  Should all the stores in Philly close down for whatever reason, you probably want to head here since I am fairly certain we'll be able to hold out for a few weeks or months with what we have in house.

So, given how much I love cooking (and shopping for cool ingredients), it's been doubly sad that Hallie has such a fraught and negative relationship to food.  It meant that we could not share something that I really longed to share with her.  Lea seems to be heading in the exact opposite direction (she loves to eat, but is especially fond of fruits and veggies and will try almost anything, even foods that are a bit adventurous for a 2 year old like pad thai and curries).  

Anyway, I am sort of digressing.  To return to the subject:  on New Year's Day, Hallie requested chocolate chip cookies.  We didn't have any pre-made ones in the house (I tend not to buy store bought cookies, with the exception of graham crackers and Oreos since she'll eat those).  So, being the mom that I am, I offered to whip up a batch of chocolate chocolate chip cookies for her.  Half an hour later they were ready and, wouldn't you know it, she ate a few.  She proceeded to eat a couple more per day, every day.  She would often just eat part of a cookie and then move on to another one (who knows why Hallie does this, but this is a pattern even when there is no discernible change in taste from one portion of the item to the next.  For example, she'll nibble all around the edges of a Ritz cracker and reject the middle).  No matter about the discarded half-cookies; I considered it a major victory that she was willing to eat something that I actually made from scratch.  (FYI:  I do not consider toasting wheat bread and smearing it with butter to be real cooking).

The kids finished up the last of the cookies this morning and I offered to make some more.  I took the butter out of the fridge to bring it to room temperature and set up the Kitchen Aid Stand mixer on the counter (some day I would enjoy having a kitchen big enough to allow me to leave it out all of the time).  I was taken aback, in a very nice way, when Hallie asked me if she could help.  We read through the ingredient list together and she helped me measure out the white and brown sugars and the flour and cocoa.  She was excited about cracking the eggs (which she did very carefully with my assistance) and eagerly smelled the vanilla.  Dumping the ingredients into the mixer was a hugely fun endeavor but each time I got ready to turn it on, Hallie announced that she needed to go into the living room to hide since the mixer was too loud.  I tried to keep the loudness to a minimum (I only really needed to turn the mixer on high to cream the butter and sugar; the rest could be done at a slower and quiet speed).  And by the end, when I was mixing in the flour, I was doing it at a very low speed to avoid blanketing myself and the kitchen in flour (I hate when it poofs up and coats everything because I forget to take this precaution).

I was in the midst of doing this when Hallie ventured into the kitchen and asked if she could help.  Apparently she was no longer afraid of the mixer.  So she climbed up on the step stool and watched as the flour went in and then dumped the last couple of quarter-cups in as the mixer did its stuff. 

The batter was basically mixed and I turned off the Kitchen Aid and lifted up the arm.  Hallie looked at the batter and said, "That looks yummy; can I taste it?"

I have never heard a more wonderful question in my life.  I responded, "Of course!  You can even lick the bowl!"  So I knocked most of the batter off of the spatula and beater and gave them to Hallie.  She ran to the living room and went to town:

She came back to help me mix in the chocolate chips (which she sampled first; she loves chocolate chips) and helped me form the cookies.  She was eager to make sure that they turned out right and so she asked for (and received) a flashlight that would allow her to examine their progress through the oven window.

I am happy to report that they turned out fine.

What a lovely way to spend part of the afternoon!  I couldn't have asked for anything nicer.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Speech, Speech!

Wednesdays are speech therapy days around here:  Hallie has a half an hour of private speech (and an hour of private OT) in the morning and then an hour of speech at school (which runs coterminous with the Social Skills Inclusion Program that she attends there) late in the afternoon.

While that's a lot for a kid to do in one day (it amounts to 3 hours of therapy, broken up by lunch and playtime), Hallie approaches therapy as if it were play (we used to tell her that we were going off to play with so-and-so but Hallie knew better and started calling it therapy, so now we do, too).  As long as the therapist is a good fit for her*, Hallie works really hard in therapy and likes to please whomever she is working with. 

(*One should not underestimate the importance of a good working rapport between a child and his or her therapists.  There are many therapists and teachers out there who should not be working with kids, or at least not with Hallie.  We usually give them a few weeks to a few months and if they still deem Hallie to be a difficult child or try violate her trust, we fire/replace them.  Likewise, if Hallie has been working with someone and makes no progress in a three month period, we discontinue therapy and look elsewhere.  In such cases, the therapist may be well-versed in whatever it is that s/he does, but it simply is not something that works for Hallie.  The best therapists we've had have looked at Hallie as an individual and figured out what turns her on and then uses this as an avenue for helping her learn to do something that is hard for her to do on her own).

Anyway, I digress.  Back to yesterday.  E. came out of the session with Hallie a few minutes early so that she could talk to me about Hallie's recent progress.  Lately, Hallie has really made great strides in dealing with the problems that she had been having with pronoun genders (she used to mix up 'he' and 'she' and 'him' and 'her' lately; now she gets these right about 80% of the time); with sequencing (being able to organize cards logically so that they show the evolution of a simple narrative sequence); and with describing objects in more robust terms.  She is also doing a bit better in terms of answering "what" questions and in beginning to discuss simple subjects in a free-form way (things like her family, what she did that day, etc.). 

All of this is very good.  The only problem is that this may in fact disqualify her from receiving speech therapy paid for by our insurance.   While, even in terms of these aforementioned exercises (and even more glaringly in real life, a topic to which I shall return in a bit) Hallie is still quite clearly behind most of her peers, she is not necessarily sufficiently behind them to receive therapy.  Apparently the range of 'normal' speech is still quite broad at age 4.5 and one has to be quite a bit behind the lowest level of what is deemed normal to qualify for services.   This is something we're going to have to test (quite literally):  there are a lot of very different assessment tools out there and some of them do a better job than others of evaluating preschool speech.

You might ask me why am I not more excited that Hallie is on the verge of placing out of private speech services?  I think this is a fair question, but it has a pretty complicated answer.  First off, let me state that I am nothing short of thrilled that Hallie has been making so much progress.   She is a hard little worker and she is cognitively quite bright.  She can follow directions pretty well (even for a kid who quite obviously has problems with attention and focus and eye contact and stuff like that) and learns things very, very quickly.  I think all of this will serve her extremely well.  She also generalizes well (though this sometimes can be a problem.  More on this later, too).

But all of that being acknowledged and celebrated, there are some problems with Hallie's speech.  Most of them have to do with pragmatics.  I blogged about this before (and sadly will probably do so again). The issue is that none of the assessment tools (and none of the insurance agencies and educational institutions that rely on these assessment tools for evaluating and treating speech disorders) account for problems with pragmatic speech.  She still had a very difficult time extending communication beyond a formulaic social greeting (she easily says "Hi So-and-So" but has no idea where to go from there) and cannot easily initiate, let alone sustain a conversation beyond one to two very basic turns.  So, for example, she might say to a peer who has a crayon that is the same color as the one with which Hallie is drawing, "Look, we match crayons!" (she loves doing this because she is extremely enamored of matching and categorizing concrete objects).  But beyond, perhaps, saying something like "we both have black ones," the conversation goes nowhere.  This does not become an avenue, perhaps, for discussing even the fact that they are both drawing pictures of dragons with their black crayons, let alone a more abstract and less concrete discussion about their lives.  So no using this conversational turn as an opening for talking about how they both went to parties and had fun in the bouncy house or got new toys from Santa or ate too many cookies or watched a new princess movie or whatever it is that typically developing four and a half year old little girls go on and on about.  Rather, Hallie will note that the crayons match and move on (as in, retreat into herself) from there.

Can Hallie put together a four or five or seven word sentence?  Sure.  Can she use more than two adjectives in that sentence when prompted (turning that black crayon into a big, fat, black crayon)?  Sure.  Can she tell you that so-and-so also has a black crayon and that that makes two black crayons?  You betcha.  But can she sustain any sort of conversation with her peers?  No way.  She might, under duress and extreme prompting, sustain two or three turns with us or a therapist (and in our world this usually involves redirecting her attention at least twice and asking us to look at us in the eyes numerous times).  But this does not make age appropriate speech.

Conversations are always easier (if the above seems easy to you) when they relate to concrete things (like matching crayons, or toys, or clothing) rather than abstractions.  It is enormously hard for Hallie to discuss her feelings (I actually think that it's really hard for her to feel her feelings), especially when these feelings are complicated.  So, she might be able to say that she feels sick and even tell us where (her tummy hurts), but this is pretty concrete.  She cannot tell us that she felt sad or mad or angry when another kid took her toy (though she can act out that anger, at least when it is directed at Lea).  Rather, even when she is the victim of a Lea toy snatch, and even if she is actively engaged in attempting to grab back that toy (and/or pummel Lea), when we attempt to turn such (frequent) events into a teachable moment and ask her, "Hallie, how does it make you feel when Lea takes your toy?" Hallie will respond, "I feel HAPPY!"  She is so very clearly not happy, but we think that she cannot own the feelings of anger and sadness.  First, she has been taught the formulaic phrase "I feel HAPPY!" in much the same way as her first (and not terribly good, and certainly not understanding of Hallie's differences) Early Intervention speech therapist taught her the phrase, "I want please Mommy X" which then got used in lieu of all other spontaneous speech utterances for about six months.  So the only feeling she can name is HAPPY, even if she can feel a much broader range of emotions.  Second, it's really hard to voice anger and sadness when you live in Hallie's world, which is one in which she is so anxious to please everyone.  She is apparently afraid of letting us down.  There may be even more to this inability to voice emotions, but that's my thinking about it for now.

Other sorts of abstract utterances, such as describing what she did today or talking about the weather, the seasons, what is going on at school etc---anything which relates to discussing that which is not in the lived moment---are likewise very very difficult for Hallie.  This situation is beginning to improve a bit so now we might actually learn something about her day from her (but we always need to corroborate this with an outside source who might be able to inform us whether they really did read a particular story, play a particular game etc).  But this skill is slow to emerge.

Even slower to emerge (read: non existent) are complicated "Wh" questions.  Hallie has one question that she asks, which is "What is" that?  She will ask this about things and about people (she modifies the latter a bit and inquires, "What is that named?")  But everything is a what.  There are no "who"s, "where's, "when"s, and most certainly no "why"s.  Hallie asked us "why" once, eleven months ago, and has never uttered the word since then.  We are constantly setting up why questions for her, and also asking her to answer our "why"s.  Hallie has learned (because she is good at generalizing formulae) that one answers a "why" question by beginning her retort with the word "because."  So she does that quite consistently.  The only problem is that her "because" clauses often bear little to no relationship to the questions themselves.  So, for example, you might ask Hallie "Why didn't you eat your toast?" and she might respond "Because it makes you so happy!"  (again with that happiness formula).  Causality eludes Hallie.  Curiosity does not:  Hallie is curious about the relationships between things and loves to read and wants to know what is going on in the world.  It's just that the sorts of relationships she sees between things may very well be different than the ones that we typically focus upon.  I don't quite have a better way of understanding, let alone conveying, this phenomenon.

So the question remains:  can this stuff be taught?  I do think that the social niceties can be taught and that, as Hallie matures and fills in the developmental blanks (which she is doing quite well with the help of Floortime/DIR and her social skills training and just plain maturity, because let's not forget that Hallie does have delays on top of her disorders) that it is likely that she will make further progress on these harder-to-assess fronts, too.  I just don't know what the timetable might be, let alone the route this progress will take.  I do know one thing though:  it will take a lot of hard work, drilling, and the involvement of very good, very attuned-to-Hallie professionals to teach her the things that she needs to know.  This is where our Developmental Pediatrician is spot-on:  Hallie is very bright and is of above average intelligence and learns quickly.  However, the nature of her particular disorder is that she will need to be taught many of the things that typically developing children pick up on their own.  This is why we need to try our best to keep receiving good speech services for Hallie.  We are very involved parents, and certainly we can (and do) read up on how to help Hallie and we apply the lessons we learn from Hallie's various therapists at home so that she gets far more than the seventeen hours of formal therapy she receives outside of the home.  But while we are part of a therapeutic team, we are not therapists ourselves.

One final speech concern:  lately, Hallie has been attempting more spontaneous speech at home.  This is wonderful.  It often involves trying to tell us about stuff that is important to her and, even though we parents aren't all that interested in the TV characters of whom she is enamored, we are always eager to hear what Hallie has to say.  The only problem is this:  the less scripted, the less formulaic, and the longer these speech utterances are, the more likely Hallie is to stammer/stutter in her attempt to get the words out.  She'll often get caught on the first few words of her longer (say seven to ten or so word) sentence and repeat the opening phrase two or three times before the rest jumps out.  Her articulation is very clear, but the words get stuck.  Maybe it's an executive planning issue.  Maybe it's an anxiety issue.  And maybe it's simply a developmental stage.  Whatever it is, I am careful not to finish her sentences or make a big (or even little) deal of it.  Coincidentally, I heard a very interesting show on Marty Moss-Coane's Radio Times (a locally produced, very good NPR news show) titled, "Struggling to Speak," that relates to stuttering and the new Colin Firth/Geoffrey Rush film, The King's English.  Marty had on the film's screenwriter (David Seidler) a well-known local chef, Marc Vetri, who is a lifelong stutterer, and the head of the stuttering program at CHOP.  This provided a lot of food for thought, so to speak, and also another resource to check out if Hallie's stutter gets worse or causes her further anxiety.

Speaking about CHOP and anxiety, all of us have a bit more of this than usual:  on Monday, we'll be heading over to outpatient surgery at CHOP for Hallie's first, temporary vocal cord bulking.  We are all eager to hear what Hallie's voice might be like with a bit of augmentation.  But putting her under always gives us pause.  Not to mention that, as she gets older, Hallie becomes more aware of her medical issues and more concerned about going to the doctor.  She is convinced that Doctor Karen has already fixed her voice (apparently two visits to the Voice Clinic at CHOP were quite enough for Hallie).  So getting her in for a third treatment (this one far more uncomfortable than the first two, which involved having her make noises and get weighed) will not be fun.  Even less fun:  this particular trial substance lasts perhaps three months or so.  So if it does work (and we hope it does), we'll be back for more come the summer.  Prematurity:  the gift that keeps giving!

Monday, January 3, 2011

A Year in the Life of Hallie

As 2010 drew to a close, we've been reflecting on how much Hallie's life has changed over the past year.

This was really brought home to us by the differences we saw in Hallie's response to her school holiday party this year, relative to last.  As I think I mentioned a few posts ago, last year we had to drag her kicking, screaming, and crying back to school on the evening of the party.  Everything was a bit amiss that evening:  Sharon picked her up from school instead of me; instead of getting out of the car at our house, I got into the car with Baby Lea (who was very much a baby at that stage) and a huge dish of macaroni and cheese and we headed back to school.  We tried to explain to Hallie that there was a party at school and that we'd all be having dinner there (never much of a draw for Hallie) and that she'd see her friends and teachers and sing holiday songs.  But Hallie was overwhelmed, in tears, and heard none of it.  Once we got there, things were sort of okay but only just sort of:  as expected, dinner was not much of a draw, and there was a lot of noise and general mayhem.  Kids were racing around and playing with one another but Hallie couldn't make much sense of what was going on.  She sat off to the side when the singing began (as she has done at pretty much every school performance up until just recently) and did not/could not engage with the other kids.  We survived the evening but only just:  our threshold for survival was low and basically entailed making it through without a major meltdown, Hallie vomiting, or Hallie running off through the church hall door when some unsuspecting parent opened it.  It wasn't exactly a low-key, stress-free event and, needless to say, neither Sharon nor I networked or chatted with other parents (which is what parents do at such events).   We kept an eye on Hallie, dealt with Lea who was a bit out of sorts in her own right, and were glad to just to escape unscathed.

Fast forward to this year:  The YCCA had the good sense to break up the dinner/concert into two locations.  The little kids would perform their songs first in the upstairs classroom and then eat.  The older kids would perform an hour later in the big church hall in the middle of the pot-luck feast.  There are only seven families (our own amongst them) who have kids both younger and older, and we were welcome to spend time at both events or either event as we wished.

We opted to head over to the little kid's concert first to hear Lea perform.  Lea, like Hallie, enjoys music immensely and was the only kid in her group (which is the youngest) who participates regularly in sing-along activities.  We knew she'd be psyched to be part of the group.  Hallie also knows the younger kids (the YCCA is small--about 60 or 70 kids altogether--and while kids spend much of their time with their age cohort, they do mix it up with other age groups, especially when they have siblings at school, at various points during the day.  This, plus the fact that Hallie is peer buddy to some of the younger kids in the inclusion program that she helps guide through activities, means that she is quite comfortable with a lot of the younger kids.  So she was excited to partake in the little kids' performance, too.

The real surprise for us came when we went over to the main hall of the church for the big kids' party. In stark contrast to last year, Hallie ran in, saw all of her friends, and immediately ran off to join them.  

She was an eager participant in the concert and sat right in the middle of all of the other kids:

And, while she wanted no part of eating dinner, she was far from alone in this respect.  After all, it was much more fun to run around the table than to sit down at it:

I know that this video footage was a bit dark and noisy, but it did capture the atmosphere of the holiday party (in other words, mayhem) quite accurately.

So, unlike last year when the four of us were among the first to leave the shindig, this year we pretty much closed down the house.  This suited Lea quite well: she spent much of the final half hour doing an impersonation of Cookie Monster (she went around grabbing cookies from all of the tables, and apparently eating most of them).

Towards the end of the evening, I stopped A., the preschool director, to let her know how grateful we were for everything.  I explained that I meant more than just that the school's teachers and staff had organized such a lovely holiday gathering; rather, we were so thankful for the opportunity that she had given our family, and especially Hallie.

A. had allowed us to enroll Hallie outside of the usual waiting list back when we were having so many problems negotiating the agency that runs the preschool (3-5) program for Early Childhood Intervention in Philly.  We were given such a huge runaround and no straight answers and the school in which the agency sought to place Hallie was so clearly inappropriate (and likely unsafe) for her.  I blogged about all of this here and here.  Anyway, even though she didn't really know us and she knew that she was taking on a fairly complicated little three year old who did not talk (Hallie was utterly silent at school for about the first four months), refused to eat, had trouble settling down to nap, was not toilet trained, and was about 30% behind an average kid her age (so closer to being just 2 than just 3), A. was happy to admit Hallie.  It's not like the YCCA needed more kids to make the desired level of tuition receipts either; like most of the decent preschools in the area, the YCCA has a waiting list of children whose parents are eager to enroll them in the program.  A. accepted Hallie because she is interested in providing opportunities for children who have special needs (A. has a Master's degree in Creative Arts Therapy and teaching degrees in Music and  Special Education).  Hallie certainly fit the bill.

Anyway, we were (and are) exceedingly grateful that A. decided to open the doors to the program to Hallie and I just wanted to let her know this.

What A. said in response to me really touched me deeply.  She said, "If I were ever to have the opportunity to make a documentary about the school, I'd want to feature Hallie in it.  I've never encountered a child who underwent such a big change in such a short period of time."

She went on to say that the entire system was ranged against Hallie and that the folks who were responsible for evaluating and placing her were quite happy to write her off as a child who would be forever excluded from regular general education.  Everything they were pushing for suggested that they thought she'd be in a self-contained Special Education system for the balance of her school career.   We were fighting this (and still are) but the reality was that we needed somewhere to place Hallie that did provide an inclusive environment and one where children with special needs were not just accepted or tolerated but actively included.  We needed a school where the staff was trained to work with special needs children, where they taught other children to be buddies with kids who have special needs, and where the curriculum was eclectic enough to be individualized for kids (and not just kids with special needs, either; I think that everyone, special needs or otherwise, learns differently.  A good teacher will be aware of the different ways children learn and a good curriculum will be flexible enough to be adapted to visual learners, auditory learners, etc).  

That's where the YCCA came into things; Hallie has thrived there.  She has gone from a silent, marginal child who watched from the sidelines even when she knew enough to participate to an active, engaged, child who initiates conversations and play with her peers and who is demonstrating real academic strengths that place her at the top of her class (her reading, spelling, counting, and analogizing skills are very obvious to everyone around her, especially her teachers).  

A. believes that Hallie will be fine in a general education setting and that we no longer have nothing to worry about.

Of course we hope she is correct.   Some days it seems to us that this is the direction in which Hallie is headed:  she is eager to read and follows along with words (moving her fingers across the words and sounding things out) almost all of the time.  She wants to know how to spell words she likes to use and, apparently, once she can identify a word, she never forgets what it looks like.  She can pick out which shows she'd like to watch this way and even distinguish between various episodes of these.  (Sadly, this means that she was able to catch me in my fib that our television does not receive Max and Ruby, which is a show that we have refused to let her watch too often because of her capacity to mimic Max's behavior and verbal patterns.  The last time I tried this line, she helpfully pointed out that our Comcast On Demand list did, indeed, contain Max and Ruby).  Hallie loves to learn stuff and I think this will take her quite far.

Still, we have concerns:  her verbal/conversational skills lag far behind those of her peers.  I am not a speech therapist (or any kind of therapist), but I'd guess that she's still dealing with about a 30% delay in this area (making her closer to an early 3 year old than a later 4 year old).  Her interpersonal skills often seem less well developed than Lea's:  Lea is quicker to empathize and comfort; more interested in taking care of others and meeting their needs, be it by ministering to her babies or bringing Hallie her slippers and toys; and Lea watches for your responses and tailors her own relative to these.  Hallie does none of these things and still has pretty horrible eye contact most of the time.  Lea also surpasses Hallie in terms of capacity for imaginative play.  Lea stages elaborate scenarios with her babies (she dresses them, takes them to the playground, plays hide-and-seek with them, feeds them, gets them ready for bed, brings them toys and engages in play with them etc).  Hallie sets up scenes:  she often poses her plastic figures (she pairs off Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Tianna and other princesses with stand-ins for their respective Princes, for example) or she might line up all of her figures in front of the television (real or imagined) or stage for a puppet show, but she doesn't actually stage the show or have them do anything beyond this.   Finally, lately, Hallie has been having a really hard time with being flexible.  Things have to be played with a particular way.  If they are not, Hallie tries to step in to right the wrong.  Lea, her most frequent playmate, has her own ideas but Hallie seems not to realize this.  Rather, she gets frustrated when Lea tries to do things in her own way and makes this very broadly known to us.  While some of this is just run of the mill preschooler bossiness, my sense is that this is exacerbated by a deficit in Theory of Mind

All of this points to a continued problem that Hallie is having in terms of social skills.  But this will also get in the way of higher order learning down the road.

None of this is to say that the transformation that Hallie has undergone over the past year is anything but huge.  A vast chasm separates where she was when she began school and where she is now.  She has grown cognitively by leaps and bounds and she has given us no indication that she about to stop doing this.  Still, we cannot help but worry what awaits us down the road, and more importantly, plan for how to take on Hallie's residual issues proactively so that we at least smooth them out even if we cannot make them go away entirely.