Sunday, May 25, 2008


The ten-year-old and I went to see the new Indiana Jones movie yesterday. Afterwards we stopped at our friendly local game store, Geneis Games & Gizmos. After browsing a bit he picked out Oceania and bought it.

We've played it a few times in the last two days. It's a tile placement/control game, like Carcassonne or Wooly Bully. The game is unexceptional. The only really interesting bit I've found so far is that sometimes in the later parts of the game it's easier to build up your score by closing off areas and leaving the space open rather than trying to get the exact piece that you need.

The most amusing thing that has happened with it was the score of our game this afternoon. I lost and the ten-year-old won with a score of -1 to -2.

Language, Humanity, and Autism

I've been reading an excellent book--You Are What You Say
by Matthew Bud.

In it, he talks about the power that language has in human lives. He quotes Fernando Flores as saying:

"In language we build our own identities, our relationships with others, the countries that we live in, the companies we have, and the values we hold dear. Without language we are mostly chimpanzees."

He then goes on to discuss Helen Keller and her experiences discovering the concept of language and all that it enabled her to do.

The lines that really caught my eye and inspired this post were:

"[language] allows people to become aware of themselves and of others and builds trust, intimacy, and, yes, suffering. We can't even imagine life without language."

When I think about my experiences with autism, especially my experiences with kids like the seven-year-old who lie on the lower-functioning end of the autism spectrum, an inability to communicate effectively is an enormous piece of the puzzle.

These two quotes cut to the heart of my experiences with my son. And at the same time, they don't.

The seven-year-old's ability to communicate with other people is incredibly limited. He doesn't talk; he doesn't sign; he's never yet managed to get the hang of PECS (Picture Exchange Communication System). My wife recently commented that he doesn't seem interested in learning to communicate.

His difficulties communicating very sharply limit his ability to take part in the general activities of the human race. But they don't limit his humanity, his claim to be a member of the human race.

A couple of years ago we went to visit my brother and his family in Austin. My parents and one of my uncles also came to visit at the same time. The seven-year-old had trouble with the change of routine and the unusual circumstances. He showed greater-than-usual obsessive "stimming" behaviors, things like jumping in place and throwing sand/gravel/rocks. Several months later my parents came out to visit us in Seattle.

The seven-year-old has had home therapist
s who come and do ABA (Applied Behavioral Analysis) with him in our home. After watching the therapists work with him, my mother commented about the difference between him in Austin and him at home doing therapy. She said that in Austin his behavior had seemed almost like a pet rather than a person, and had made her think of Hellen Keller. But when watching him work with his home therapists she said they reminded her of Anne Sullivan--the woman who taught Helen Keller to communicate.

The work that the therapists do with the seven-year-old and others like him are all driven around helping them express themselves and their humanity. Without that help, sometimes they barely seem like members of the human race to people who don't know them well--who haven't made the significant effort required to establish a connection with them.

That is the reason why so many parents of children with autism (myself included) go to such great lengths, sometimes virtually bankrupting themselves, in order to pay for therapy for their children. We want everyone to be able to see our children the way we do--in all their humanity, as full members of the human race.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Craving darkness

For a very long time now, the seven-year-old has preferred to sleep with the lights on. In fact, if it were up to him the lights would be on in the entire house while he sleeps. When he wakes up in the middle of the neat, he typically leaps out of bed and runs through the house turning on the lights and TVs in every room. He has a look of great distress as he does this; it seems like he is worried that something awful will happen if the lights are left off.

He has been a poor sleeper since he was about 18 months old. We've been given him melatonin supplements for five years, which helps some, and clonodine for 4 years, which helps more. Without medication he used to go to sleep any time between 8 p.m. and 4 a.m., and get up some time between midnight and noon. It was extremely hard on us.

Now, with the medication he generally goes to bed around 9 p.m. One night out of every three or four, he wakes up at night. He runs around turning things on. Sometimes he goes back to bed without a hitch, other times he's up for anything from an hour to the rest of the night.

I sleep in his room with him. We share a double bed. This seems to help keep him asleep. Sometimes I am able to convince him not to get out of bed when he wakes up, which usually means he goes right back to sleep.

We do everything we can to make the environment sleep-friendly for him. That is, to maintain the conditions that actually help him sleep rather than the conditions that you might expect will help him. The lights are on all night. The TV is on with a Sesame Street DVD playing. Fortunately he is OK with the sound muted.

As a result of all this, I haven't slept in a room with the lights off for quite a while. I've always preferred to sleep in a very dark room. I love the blackout curtains that some hotels have. Nowadays I find that have an almost physical craving for darkness at night.

Recently I tried hanging a blanket over the rail of the top bunk, creating a kind of curtain over part of the bed. This helped block out the light. It was particularly nice that it blocked it from shining on my face. It's hard to tell how the seven-year-old feels about it. Since he can't talk he doesn't tell us whether or not he likes it. At first I thought he liked it. The last week or so we haven't been so sure. He seems to be waking up more often and having more trouble going back to sleep.

Tonight as I was putting him to bed I noticed that the blanket had been pulled down from the railing. I guess that's a vote against.

Back to sleeping in the light.

More Baseball

We took the seven-year-old to his second Miracle League game this weekend. It was at a different park and there didn't seem to be quite as many kids this time. That might just be because it was on a bigger field and everyone was a little more spread out.

There was a team of teen-age boys there, they looked like they were 15 or so. The boys and their coaches acted as buddies. The seven-year-olds buddy was "Coach Mike". Coach Mike did a nice job of leading the seven-year-old around and trying to get him to pay attention to the game. He managed to get him to pick up the ball and throw it once while they were fielding.

One nice touch is that after the batter gets a hit, the pitcher tosses a couple of extra balls out onto the field for the fielding team to go after. They want to make sure that there is enough going on to keep the kids attention and give more of them chances to do something in the game.

The seven-year-old seemed excited about the game. When it was his turn to bat they offered him three bats to choose from and he was jumping up and down and squealing while he made his choice. I think that he is enjoying the process. It will be interested to see how he responds next week when we tell him that it is time for baseball and get him dressed in his uniform.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008


Last week we made another bold move and signed the seven-year-old up for Miracle League baseball. Miracle League is an organization that runs baseball leagues for children with disabilities. Rotary Clubs are heavily involved and sponsor many of the leagues, including ours. Everything is free--the games are staffed by volunteers and all the kids get free uniforms and photos.

His first game was last Saturday. It took about an hour to get uniforms passed out and pictures taken before they went outside to the field. That was tough; they had to wait in a crowded gym, and the seven-year-old doesn't like crowded, noisy spaces. But he made it through without having a meltdown. He was even willing to put on the uniform.

Once they got out onto the field, every child gets a buddy who stays with them throughout the game. The seven-year-old's buddy was a silver-haired gentleman who looked like he might be in his early sixties. The game consisted of a single inning. Every child on each team gets an at-bat, and stays at bat until they get a hit. Some kids were able to swing on their own, either at the pitch or on a tee. Others had their buddy hold the bat with them hand-over-hand to swing. The seven-year-old's buddy held the bat hand-over-hand and basically swung for him.

I got a little worried when the brought out the batting helmet. The seven-year-old doesn't like anything to touch his head. There was a brief attempt at putting the helmet on him, and then the buddy took it and put it on his own head. I started forward to help, but they got it resolved before I got to the plate.

I don't think the seven-year-old had any concept of what was going on around him, but he got to be outside, and his buddy did a nice job of entertaining him. They spent a while jumping up and down in line, and then the seven-year-old was playing the the lanyard of his buddy's umbrella.

It was a reasonably successful morning. We're going to keep taking him and see how it goes.

Monday, May 5, 2008

On the phone

Last week the ten-year-old started asked to call my parents. He called them 6 times in 7 days.

I commented to my wife that this surprised me. She then related to me a conversation they had had with his psychologist. The psychologist had been asking him about times when he had been feeling bad and then started to feel better. One of the things that he came up with was that talking to Grandma and Grandpa on the phone had cheered him up the previous week.

Apparently he has seized on that idea as a well to feel better in general. He is also starting to branch out to other family members. He called my aunt and my brother over the weekend.

It is very exciting for us to see him starting to build a social support network.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Test Automation Contexts

Over the past couple of months, I've been leading cross-product group at work that is discussing test automation and trying to increase our efficiency/effectiveness. In the first couple of meetings, we ran into a lot of confusion and disagreement. At the suggestion of one of the participants, we took a collective step back to come up with a problem statement. Without too much difficulty, we were able to agree on the following problem statement for automation.

The goal of Test Automation is to create reusable test assets that reduce or eliminate the asymmetry of effort between test and development for new release.

So what the heck does that mean? By asymmetry of effort we mean that as the product becomes more complex, the test load for each release climbs faster than the dev load. We have to test both the new features and the integration of new features with old features, but the dev team is only producing new features. So on Release 1, dev build N features, testing test N features. On Release 2, dev builds N features again while testing tests N new features plus N^2 interactions between new features and old features. The longer the product lives, the more features get integrated and the bigger that gap gets.

By reusable test asset, we mean tests that can be run against multiple releases of the product, multiple hardware platforms, os’s, etc. without having to be completely rewritten for each release. Sometimes that isn’t possible—when dev changes how a feature works, the test has to change too. But we need to do that without breaking the version of the test that runs against older versions of that feature.

Having a problem statement and some agreed upon definitions helped, but we continued to have a surprising level of disagreement. For instance, to me it was obvious that we needed a database to keep track of the history of test results, but another member of the group argued strongly that a database was irrelevant, the only thing he cared about was the results of the current test run. I spent a lot of time and thought trying to make sense of this. Eventually it occurred to me that he was a developer working in a development team, rather than a tester working in a test team. His context was different than mine.

That realization turned out to be the key. I had one on one conversations with several members of the group, and then brought up the idea in the meeting. As we talked it over, we came up with four contexts in which our company uses test automation.

  • Developer Test Automation

  • Development Team Test Automation

  • Project Automation

  • Product-line Automation

Different groups within the company were creating automation in different contexts, but the automation rarely crossed boundaries, so (for example) the test team wasn't getting the benefit of the automation being built by developers.

What is the difference between the different contexts? What are then constants? Migrating tests from one context to another would give a big boost to our return on investment. How do we make it possible (and easy) for tests to migrate from one context to another?

A night at the theater

In a bold move, we decided to take the seven-year-old to see the play Busytown at Seattle Children's theater last week. I was a little nervous about it. We take him lots of places, but rarely to places where everybody is quiet and he needs to be quiet and still. We've taken him to movies a couple of times at a theater that does a monthly Special Needs Matinee. He does ok there, but he doesn't manage to stay seated the whole show; he spends some of the time wandering around the theater.

It got off to a rocky start. As soon as we sat down in our seats, he jumped up, ran down front, got up on the stage, and ran across the stage into the wings. I ran along after him, but the theater staff stopped me at the edge of the stage and said they'd bring him back to me. Fortunately, he cooperated with them and came back quietly. I spent the rest of the play either holding his hand or with my hand wrapped in his shirt.

When the play started, he paid he was quiet and attentive. He got a little agitated when they turned the lights down, but overall he seemed to be enjoying the play. He bobbed along with the music during the songs, and clapped when the audience clapped. About ten minutes before the end of the first act he got a little too worked up, and I took him out into the lobby for a few minutes. Then he went back in and was fine.

He followed the exact same pattern of behavior during the second act. When we came in from intermission, he jumped up again. This time, I was ready and managed to catch him by his fingertips and keep him from running off. He listened and watched, and again he got agitated shortly before the end of the act. I took him out and then brought him back in for the finale.

Overall, it was a very successful night at the theater.