Archives for the month of: November, 2013

ImageNovember 30, 2013

 by Debra Hosseini

Often I write about artists on this page. This story is personal. It’s about Kevin, my son.

Nineteen years ago today in a hospital in Bakersfield a beautiful baby was born. In the bag I took to the hospital, I packed one of the soft pink outfits set aside for the new addition to our family. The last three ultrasounds, the doctor assured me I was having another girl.

Emily would join Justine and Kathleen in our family. We were thrilled.

Imagine our shock and delight when we heard, “It’s a boy.” Instead of an Emily, we had a Kevin.

Kevin Hosseini Gauguin and Me

Kevin Hosseini Gauguin and Me

Today, nineteen years later, Kevin had planned a celebration with family and friends at a local pizza parlor in town where he has a part-time job. In preparation, Kevin spent many hours talking about the party and who he was going to invite. He wrote and rewrote his guest list. Invited were friends from his transition program, family and past paraprofessionals who’ve worked closely with him.

“I want an ice cream cake, Mom.”

“Okay, Kev.”

“I want music CD’s and clothes.”

Kevin also wanted people to dance at his party.



Today instead of pizza and cake, Kevin’s spending his birthday in a psychiatric ward twenty miles away. Visiting hours are 6:00 – 7:00 PM. He’s allowed no gifts. No dancing. Cell phones and cameras aren’t permitted.

He’s been away from home for over a week.

On the phone this morning, I was reluctant to remind Kevin that today was his birthday. I didn’t want to cause him any more distress.

Instead of celebrating, I feel today is a day for me to write, process, and reflect.

What many people may not realize is that the Art of Autism project is inspired by Kevin and his colorful, textured art.

This is Kevin’s story.

When Kevin was born I was 36. He’s the youngest of three. He came into this world with trauma. He was turned the wrong way and required an emergency C-section.

He developed normally until around 15 months when he started losing words and retreating into himself. I was so busy with three children and work I didn’t even notice. A neighbor who was an early intervention specialist did. This was the first of many people who came to our family to help Kevin.

Kevin Hosseini "Abstract"

Kevin Hosseini “Abstract”

“I notice your son riding around the block on his tricycle. It doesn’t seem he’s talking much,” she said.

She arranged for Kevin to receive early-start intervention which consisted of a play therapist and a speech therapist coming to our house a couple times a week. Not long after, the diagnosis of autism came.

At the time I thought maybe he’ll outgrow it. It wasn’t until he was six that I realized he probably wouldn’t outgrow autism.

Kevin qualified for a grant with the Koegel UCSB Autism Center. The therapists spent many hours playing games and creating structure for Kevin. They also provided training for me.

Kevin’s favorite toy as a child was Brio trains.

“Under the bridge,” the therapist would say pushing a little train under the bridge.

“Under” Kevin would repeat. Kevin’s reward for good behavior was visiting the train station. We spent hours watching trains.

Kevin Hosseini "Train" was displayed at Union Station

Kevin Hosseini “Train” was displayed at Union Station

The Koegels had stellar therapists. Kevin worked hard on developing skills such as not going into a tantrum when he lost a game, and not screaming when we weren’t in the fast lane on the highway.

Kevin and John Marc, a chess champion, spent many hours in front of the chessboard. Kevin became quite competent at chess.

One therapist taught Kevin how to surf. For years, Kevin would spend most of his summers in a wetsuit on Carpinteria city beach. He was able to participate in regular surf and kayak camps with typical kids.

“He caught a wave today,” the surf instructor told me. Kevin’s skin turned a deep chocolate brown and his hair developed blonde streaks from the sun in the summer.

A friend loaned Kevin a drum kit and he took drumming lessons at Mike’s Drums Store in Santa Barbara.


Ringo is in the book “Drawing Autism”

One day I went to pick up Kevin from surf camp and he was drumming in a little make-shift band. His surf instructor was on the guitar and another on the bass. They were playing a Jack Johnson surf song.

“He’s got a little rhythm going,” the instructor said.

The day Colin arrived Kevin’s art career began. For four years, Kevin spent many hours with Colin pouring over art books learning biographies and techniques of the masters. Under Colin’s supervision, Kevin practiced different techniques on canvases.

We set aside an entire room in our house for his painting. The oil paint splattered on the walls and the tile floors. I felt the mess was a small sacrifice for the fun it brought to him. He loved texture and would layer his oil paintings with sticks and sometimes leaves.

Kevin still loves bright swirling colors and lots of paint on his canvas.

Keith, another therapist, had a dog named Bella that Kevin became enamored of. Keith used to joke that Bella, like Kevin, was autistic. They’d spend hours walking on the bluffs in Carpinteria. Kevin’s painted several paintings of Bella.


Bella the autistic dog

One day Kevin visited an art gallery in Santa Barbara and much to his therapist’s amazement had a long conversation with the curator about different artists. Not many eleven year old kids know that much about art.

In fourth grade, Kevin for the first time walked home from school by himself. I drove to the corner and parked behind a tree so he couldn’t see me. When he turned the corner, I moved my car down the street. I continued watching to make sure he knew the correct route home. I did this for a couple of weeks. One day he caught me.

Carpinteria Train Station

Carpinteria Train Station

“Mom, you don’t have to watch me. I can walk by myself,” he said.

For the next three years, Kevin walked the ten blocks home from school. He also rode his bicycle and skateboard around our small town. He was doing well in the alternative family school.

Before long, we found ourselves inundated with art canvases that Kevin completed in his therapy sessions. We began to donate his art work to nonprofits in town. He won student art contests. When he was twelve, I entered him into a regular exhibition with seasoned artists, and the juror chose his painting!

I felt Kevin’s hard work and all the hours of therapy would afford Kevin to live an independent and fulfilling life.

When Kevin was thirteen and in seventh grade, Kevin came home one day and went to bed. He stopped talking and retreated into himself. He started pacing, flexing his arms in contorted positions, over his head. His body would jerk like a wave. Sometimes he’d go into a rage and throw things. He talked about another Kevin. He felt that the remote to the TV was controlling him and talked of an orange box that gave him messages.

I received alarmed emails from the special ed teacher at school.

“What’s wrong with Kevin?”

“Schizo-affective disorder,” the doctor said. The doctor prescribed seizure medication and an anti-psychotic.

Gotham City

Gotham City

Our world began to unravel. Kevin was no longer safe by himself. He needed twenty-four hour supervision. He could no longer be trusted to walk home from school. He would go into stores and steal things right off the shelf. The only interest he sustained was his art.

We couldn’t seem to find the right combination of medications and therapies to help Kevin.

At age fifteen, Kevin was picked up by the police and put into juvenile hall.

Police car

Police car

“He doesn’t belong here,” the captain said. “All the kids are trying to help him. They know he doesn’t belong here.”

After two nights, he was transferred to a psychiatric hospital where he spent almost two months. Then to a crisis home 120 miles away. We drove the two-hours to visit him each week.

He was put on medication that seemed to help him. He attended school again. Our family was hopeful when he came home at age 16, his junior year in high school. Kevin had learned good habits in the group home and he was appreciative to be back home. We were hopeful again.

He made it through his junior and senior year and was excited to attend City College this Fall in a transition program. Last year his art was recognized by VSA and was at an exhibition at the Smithsonian. He has two pieces now on exhibit at the State Russian Museum in St. Petersburg.

Bus or Cycle

Bus or Cycle

Kevin has hopes for his art. After he painted this one earlier this year, he said “This one’s so good it’s going to get me to Paris.” Not long after Kevin went to San Antonio for the “Yes I Can Awards.” He won an award for visual art.

Going to Paris

Going to Paris

A few months ago Kevin started to unravel again. Each day has become worse. We’ve been working with a prominent psychiatrist (thanks to the Billingtons) to adjust his meds. He receives cognitive behavioral therapy, mindfulness therapy and has a behaviorist who comes to our home twice a week. He still paints.

Last week Kevin voluntarily checked himself into a psychiatric hospital. The first few days we were hopeful.

“I’m here because they’re going to help me,” he said on Monday.

On Thanksgiving he took a turn for the worse.

Yesterday, he had an awful day. They gave him emergency medication which knocked him out.

Today when I talked to him he said, “I want to come home. I want to have a birthday party at Giovanni’s. It makes me want to cry.”

“When you come we’ll have a big party for your birthday,” I tell him.

“Will it be a dance party?” he asks.

“Yes, we’ll have a dance party when you come home.”

Instead of gifts today, I would love if people would keep Kevin in their prayers and send him light and love on his nineteenth birthday.

Bella and me

Kevin Hosseini “Bella and me”

Kevin Hosseini’s website is Kevin’s always had angels who help him. This is a collaborative painting he completed with J. Dan Gibbs called Angel for the Normal Films documentary “Arts: Possibilities, Disabilities, and the Arts.”


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Teacher Tom: I Don’t Need To “Teach” Them.


After reading this Washington Post editorial on why so many children are crying as they do their homework, I was reminded of this post from a couple years back. Standardization is the enemy of learning.


Last week as I sat down to lunch with 8 of our 9 Pre-K children (older 4 and 5-year-olds), I asked if anyone was missing from class. Some of them immediately started counting the people around the table. Others seemed to be studying the faces, playing a kind of memory game within themselves to determine which friend was missing. A couple launched into a trail and error method of calling out the names of the people who ought to be there, hunting for the one who wasn’t. There was discussion around and across the table, a sharing of information, speculation, and data, a discussion of strategy, until it was determined by consensus that Orlando wasn’t there. 

So how many are here today? They all started counting at once, the volume rose rapidly, then without any intervention by adults the sound fell again as each boy took a turn counting. Some ended with 8 others with 9. There were re-counts, which resulted in the same discrepancy, until Isak noticed that some of the kids were including Teacher Tom in the count, while others were only counting children. A debate erupted over whether or not Teacher Tom should be included, until they finally came to the agreement that there were 8 kids, but if you included Teacher Tom it was 9.
And Orlando was still missing; he was traveling with his family.
A reader recently wrote asking about how, in a play-based curriculum, the children in Woodland Park’s Pre-3 class learn to count, recite their A-B-C’s, and other “conventional things.”
I know parents worry about these things, especially with this insane “Tiger Mom” talk that has recently been injected into an already emotional conversation. Let me assure you right here that the only children who are genuinely at risk for not acquiring literacy and basic math skills are those whose parents lack them, who do not speak English, or who have a learning disability. I’m sure there are isolated examples of the contrary, but by far the number one determinate for actual illiteracy or mathematical illiteracy are illiterate parents. Everyone else always learns these “conventional things” almost in spite of what we do as teachers. And there is no correlation between learning these things early and future academic attainment. 
None. Zip. Forget about it.
I tell the parents when they register at Woodland Park that “we never bring letters or numbers into the classroom, except as they naturally occur in the world.” By that I mean, we have books, we wear name tags, there are labels on things, and useful signs, but there is no drilling or “teaching” about literacy or numeracy; no games specifically designed to learn letters, sight words, or counting. For one thing, Pre-3’s are generally thought to be developmentally too young to have to worry about such things. For another, there’s no rush.
Letters and numbers are abstractions from the real world: they represent something real, but they are not real and are therefore too artificial for the concrete brains of most young children to really comprehend. I could, of course drill them to memorize their ABC’s but that’s not the same as learning them. I’d much prefer to work with young children on language development, which is something for which they are genetically programmed. And there’s no better way to do that than by having lots of conversations with them on a variety of topics, which is simply fun. I like to toss in new words when appropriate to expand vocabulary, practice silly rhyming, and encourage them to tell me stories — anything to get them using their language “muscle.” I’ve never met a child who did not enjoy this because it is simply what the human animal is designed to do at this age. It is play. That said, I’ve never taught a Pre-3 who didn’t come in already knowing the alphabet song, which is a fun way to at least learn what to call the letters, even if it may take a few more years to really understand what letters are and what they do. They learned this song by playing with their parents.
As far as counting goes, I don’t expect the Pre-3’s to make it much farther than 10, although many can, but consistently identifying numbers doesn’t typically start to happen until around 4. Again, however, I’m not worried about it. It always happens as they need to know it to be able to communicate about and understand the things they want to do as part of their play. Instead of drilling, we again focus on things that Pre-3’s are designed to learn like sorting and patterning, which after all, is all math really is no matter how far you go in the field. When a child fills one basket with blue buttons and one with yellow, or when they make a basic A-B-A-B stripe pattern on a tiger they’re drawing, that’s “real” math as opposed to the digits, which are an abstraction and won’t make much sense to them until they get older.
As they get older, they naturally start working on one-to-one correspondence, which is what children demonstrate when they, say, count beans or pennies. When young children play board games, they are matching, taking turns, counting, making patterns, all of which are “conventional things.” Yes, you can drill a young child to memorize numbers, just as you can letters, but that isn’t the same as comprehending what they mean. The meaning has to come first — the numbers are just a way to communicate about the “real” thing.
I’ve been teaching preschoolers for well over a decade employing nothing but play as our curriculum. Not play “with a purpose,” but simply creating an environment in which children play according to their passions and interests. They all head off to kindergarden either reading or right on the verge of reading, which is right where kindergarden teachers around here expect them to be. They all have a solid understanding of what numbers mean and can even, as our Pre-K class did last week, carry on a meaningful, sophisticated conversation about mathematical concepts. These are things that naturally emerge from play.
I don’t need to “teach” them. I just need to play with them.
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