Labor of Love

When I was an impressionable teen I remember my father telling me, “Find out what it is you love to do in life.  Then, figure out a way to make money doing that thing.  Don’t worry so much about the amount of money you may or may not make.  Your life will be fulfilled with as much or as little by doing the thing you love to do.”

He’s so wise.

I’m loving life right now.  Seriously…loving life.

It’s true – I love teaching and it has always been my passion, but over the past three months I have had an amazing opportunity.  It all began by a crossing of paths.  A gentleman thought I knew some stuff and was able to communicate well.  This combined with a passion he had for dentistry.  (Side note – I really dislike going to the dentist.) We worked together to create a dental kit and an hour-long training for practices.

In the past six weeks I have trained four dental practices on how to serve the Autism Spectrum population more effectively.  I have much hope – much, much, much hope.  These audiences of dentists, dental assistants, dental hygienists, and office staff were so incredibly welcoming.  They wanted to know more – they recognized how important the ‘tools’ were that we introduced.

So – what exactly did we do?

  1.  Invited all staff to an hour-long lunch and learn.  During this hour we discussed sensory differences, communication differences, relationships differences – but most importantly, we discussed how we all have ‘spectrum tendencies’ (tags on shirts, eating mushy food, bright lights, too much noise, etc.) and how each person on the spectrum is unique.  So…the best thing each practice can do?  Simply open lines of communication to talk about specific needs/preferences.
  2. Put together a set of flashcards for each practice.  They were personalized to the practice itself -all staff members with their pictures, their ‘job,’ and a description of what they do.  The set includes dental tools and descriptions.  We laminated one set to leave in the office, and others to send home with families.
  3. A toolkit – errr…actually a toolbag.  A bag that included a variety of items that could help sensory overload at the dentist – sunglasses, fidget toys, a b-calm headset, a timer.  Things that would help to build relationships and trust – the flashcards, dental mask, social stories (see item 3 below).  Things that children could touch and feel and play with (of course, with adult supervision) – dental mirror, cotton rolls, a mouth prop.
  4. Personalized social stories.  Seriously – I cannot describe how much love I have for social stories.  What is a social story???  The idea of social stories were first promoted in 1993 by Gray and Garand (Social stories: improving responses of students with autism with accurate social information, Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, vol. 8, no. 1, pp. 1–10, 1993).  Their research focused on using social stories to increase knowledge, reduce anxiety, thereby lessening possible behavior difficulties.  Specifically, social stories have four main goals.
    1. Explain unknown situations to reduce anxiety.
    2. Use both visual and text cues to incorporate different learning styles.(K. A. Quill, “Instructional considerations for young children with autism: the rationale for visually cued instruction,” Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, vol. 27, no. 6, pp. 697–713, 1997.)
    3. Tell the story from a reader’s point of view.
    4. Increase prosocial behavior , including knowledge of social interaction with peers or others featured in the story. (D. Scattone, S. M. Wilczynski, R. P. Edwards, and B. Rabian, “Decreasing disruptive behaviors of children with autism using social stories,” Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, vol. 32, no. 6, pp. 535–543, 2002.)

    In this case, all four of these goals support a more positive, less anxious relationship between patient and provider.  Social stories have worked for us in SO. MANY. WAYS.  Want an example?  See below the story I put together for Waverly Family Dentistry (in my opinion…one of the best offices out there…because they are our office).

Dr. Young Cover Page -Teeth Cleaning-page-001Dr. Young Cover Page -Teeth Cleaning-page-002Dr. Young Cover Page -Teeth Cleaning-page-003Dr. Young Cover Page -Teeth Cleaning-page-004Dr. Young Cover Page -Teeth Cleaning-page-005Dr. Young Cover Page -Teeth Cleaning-page-007Dr. Young Cover Page -Teeth Cleaning-page-008Dr. Young Cover Page -Teeth Cleaning-page-009Dr. Young Cover Page -Teeth Cleaning-page-010Dr. Young Cover Page -Teeth Cleaning-page-011Dr. Young Cover Page -Teeth Cleaning-page-012

So, all of this is great, grand, and good – but the best part?  I think the best part was when…IN EVERY TRAINING…someone said, “This isn’t just good for children on the spectrum – this would be a great resource for every child that comes into our office.”  Boom.

Doing the thing you love…it’s true…it brings so much peace to the soul and love to the heart.  If you reside in Eastern Iowa, please support these four offices.  They are ready for you…and your children.

  • Manchester Dental Associates – Manchester, IA
  • Waverly Family Dentistry – Waverly, IA
  • Hennessey Family Dentistry – Cedar Falls, IA
  • Dr. Troutman – Independence, IA

In the meantime – if you want to know more about this training – please contact me at nicholekea@gmail





The Melangui

It’s happened again on our campus.

Another young person.  Another life cut short.

After reading my post, “Life” a colleague gave me a book for Tucker.  I’m always so appreciative of these thoughtful, out-of-the-blue gifts. In fact,  I’d prefer to never have birthday gifts and instead receive the ‘I just HAD to get this for you out-of the-blue’ gifts.

Now, in the midst of another loss, I’m compelled to tell all of you about this book.  Why?  Because I think it’s great…and so did Tucker.

It also seems fitting because earlier this week my children and I had a conversation about sadness.  We talked about how being sad and having anxiety are natural and important.  We shouldn’t try to fight off sadness…if we feel it, it’s real.

We wouldn’t know happiness without sadness.  We wouldn’t know peace without anxiety.

These opposites are simply a necessity in our emotional intelligence and experience.

I love this book.  I love everything about it.  I shared it with Tucker – and it resonated with him.  Maybe because it’s so personal – it’s not about looking at pictures that depict people who are sad, “This is what sad looks like.”  In fact, it doesn’t have any pictures of people or children being sad or anxious…but it has the words.

sit in the sun

Words about those feelings…and words to help us overcome those feelings.

What we really loved though?   The images.  These images allow you to express the darker emotions on your own – without any expectation of what it ‘should’ look like.  It was interesting to watch Tucker process these pictures as he generally thrives on more explicit social cues.


This wasn’t about social cues though…this was about giving him the words – and then allowing him to talk about how those emotions personally manifest.

A practice in abstraction…like autism.  No right, no wrong – just unique.
A practice in abstraction…like our emotional experience.  No right, no wrong – just unique.

The Book?  The Melangui by  Sara Schneckloth.

Sara and I have gone back and forth about her book and she agreed to write a few paragraphs describing her work and process.

In looking for children’s books about anxiety or depression, I’ve encountered many literal depictions of tearful faces and blankets held up over worried chins.  As a nervous and angsty child, I don’t recall looking like the kids in these books.  What I do remember is the sense of internal distress and the feeling of holding something complicated inside.  As an adult, I have worked to channel this full range of bodily emotional experience into my drawing practice.

The Melangui is a gentle, abstract, exploration of the darker feelings we all experience.  The book raises possibilities for how positive thoughts and actions may transform heavy or stressful periods into lighter and more spacious times.  The Melangui (a fusion of melancholy, angst and ennui) carries our darkness, yet can also be remade into a creature that is balanced between light and shadow, between color and its lack. 

While I’ve been making artwork for several years around the idea of how we physically hold and manifest emotion, the catalyst for making the book was the Charleston church shootings this past June.  I teach in Columbia at the University of South Carolina, and the shooter is of the same age and background of many of my students.  The unfolding of that event, so close to home and woven into every moment, affected me deeply. 

I began to make quick abstract ink drawings that carried the echo of some of the emotions triggered by the event – despair, anxiety, deep sadness, outrage.  They became the seed for the writing, and through the writing emerged a sense of hope, the belief that we don’t have to give in to our demons, and that there are things that may help to lift us back up.  All the actions – writing, breathing, moving, reaching out to friends and family – are things that have stemmed my darker tides.  

I don’t want the book to serve as a ‘how to’ guide to being happy, but rather to acknowledge the complicated range of our emotions, and that being in our bodies, moving, feeling, and acting, may help to restore a sense of balance and light.

Want a copy?  Sara will even sign it for you…

Go to the book’s website:

(Sidebar…I think it’s comical that an inanimate object like a book has its own website).

The Right Now

It’s that time of the semester.  The time when all students begin to struggle – but the struggle just seems amplified for our spectrum students.

I don’t know why…but I would guess something like this.

It’s just hard.  It’s hard to block out all of the sensory components and building language and making friends while simultaneously trying to learn.  One of the values of this blog is I’m able to look back.  It was about a year ago we began running into these same issues.  How do we help him keep going when he’s exhausted?  Thanksgiving break is still three weeks away…and he needs a break.  His brain needs a break, but it’s not time for a break.

Four emails and two calls last week.  It was a rough week.  I came to that moment that I just didn’t know what to do…at the end of my rope…at the end of the road…and then…it struck me.

Bribery.  I wrote about bribery on Day #293.  I wrote about my ‘pre-child’ self that was NEVER going to bribe my children, NEVER going to leave a function if my child had a meltdown, NEVER going to feed them fast food, and certainly NEVER give extrinsic rewards.

Then I had children and opened a REALLY big window for all of those never statements.

As a teacher, I am inherently a believer in intrinsic learning motivation.  You should do your best and try hard in your classes because you WANT to learn.

You know what though?  Not everyone is like that.

Dun dun dun (be sure to read that dramatically)…once again autism teaches me.

Tucker wants an xBox 1 like he’s never wanted anything in his life.  Okay, to be honest….he’s never really actually wanted anything – so this is a first.

So, I gave. I sent a message to his SpEd teacher with an idea for him to earn money towards this black box of goodness.  His teachers could assign certain amounts for achievements and I would create a chart at home that would allow him to track his progress towards $350.

The next thing I know his super fantastical math teacher sends me a message that they had already devised a plan.  He gets $1 for every ‘on-time’ assignment that he turns in on time and earns 80%, for every 3 (which is the equivalent of an A/B…don’t ask…it’s screwy) on a test, quiz, or major assignment he earns $3.

I let Mr. M. know my appreciation and that I will begin making some fake dollars for them.  I also tell him how much I have struggled with this decision – because I ‘preach’ intrinsic motivation so often…but I’ve come to terms with it in this way.

I like my job.
I equate school as my children’s job.
I wouldn’t go to my job if I didn’t need to make $ to pay bills (I’d instead teach and volunteer in a poverty-stricken area).
Therefore, I go to work for extrinsic rewards (house, car, not to go to jail for not paying bills)
So…I guess I can deal with rewarding Tucker in this way.
It seems another talent I have is rationalizing just about anything.
He replies…telling me that they have already put someone in charge of making ‘Tuck Bucks.’  I thought that was a cute name.
I love his teachers.  Seriously. I. LOVE. HIS. TEACHERS.
They get it.  They want him to be successful.  They know it takes a little extra.  They are willing to go the extra mile…so much so that look at what Tucker came home with today.


No joke.  These people are remarkable.  Not only are they playing along but they are doing it at an AMAZING degree.

We get home today and he says, “Oh mom.  I have something.  I have to go get my bag.  I have to show you something.”

He returns with a HUGE smile and three ‘Tuck Bucks.’ Then this conversation happened…

“Tucker.  That’s awesome!  How did you get those?”
“I got a 3 on my science test.”
“You did! What was it about?”
“It was all about balance.”
“That’s so great.  Why don’t you tell me about it while I get $3 regular dollars for your exchange.”
“Sounds great.  So, balance…”

So…these Tuck Bucks?  For now they are working wonders.  Not only is he trying harder in the part of the year he historically doesn’t try…but we’re having a conversation about the learning.

It may not work forever, it may not work for long…but it’s working for now – and in this world, that’s sometimes the only thing that matters.  Right. Now.