Category Archives: literacy

The Opposite of False Hope

Two days ago, Emma wrote her “Letter To the World” and yesterday while doing a throw-the-entire-house-into-disarray spring cleaning, I came upon a scrap of paper where I’d scrawled an enthusiastic note about something Emma had said.  I was so excited by her comment I had thought to write it down immediately lest I forget.  I even dated it.   The note read, 11/20/11 – Emma saw the next word we were about to work on and she said – “today we do “see”!  You see I did not realize then that Emma already knew how to read.  At the time, we had no idea of Emma’s capabilities.

Along with this note were books on counting, a whole book devoted to telling time, another that dealt with coins and the value of a penny, nickel, dime and quarter.  There were kindergarten level readers and books featuring simple addition and subtraction, along with multiplication and division flash cards that remained wrapped in their original cellophane wrapping, having never been opened because it was not believed Emma had mastered addition and subtraction yet, so how could we possibly expect her to move on to multiplication and division?

There have been other notes over the years, just like this one; little bits of paper where I jotted something down because I didn’t want to forget.  Usually noting things Emma said or did that proved to me that what people were saying about her were wrong, but often they were just moments, moments I wanted to record so that when I was feeling sad or discouraged I could see that there was progress, little glimmers of progress no matter how infinitesimal, they were undeniably there.

For those who have read what Emma is currently writing, all of this will seem a little strange.  You see, Emma has told us that she already could read more than two years ago when we were breaking everything down to its most basic, going over one word at a time, over and over, making sure she knew it before building on to the next and then the next.  All those years spent going over the concept of addition or subtraction, only to have her flounder when asked what 6+5 equaled.  Or when asked, “how do we spell “cat” she would remain silent or if asked to write the answer by hand or to type it, she could not and so we assumed she hadn’t learned the word yet.

We believed that because she could not read aloud a level one reader, or answer a question about the contents of that story, it meant she was unable to read or understand.  When she was unable to answer us, little things like, “where do we go to buy milk?” and she would giggle and say something completely unrelated like,  “it’s Mommy’s turn” I would then despair, look at my husband with fear and believe this proved, yet again, just how far we had to go.  There were other fears too.  Fears about what all of this meant to my child for her future, but increasingly I would try to head those off with a kind of stoic resolve to not give into them and to review once more the concept of quantity, or time, or value, or the spelling of a single-syllable word.

Of course looking back I see how wrong we were.  I understand now that the problem was she had no way of communicating to us what she knew.  She could not “tell” us, she could not “show” us in any way that we were able to see.  All those reading comprehension questions, all those work sheets, all that fear, all those days, months, years spent in terror…   I see this now.  I “get” it.  Now.  Now I get it, but for so long I did not.  For so many years I didn’t understand.  I kept thinking she couldn’t learn.  I kept thinking what was being said to her wasn’t understood.  I kept thinking that I had to use more basic language, that I was complicating things, that the answer was to dumb it down, to do more review, more repetition, more of the same, over and over until she could answer me in the way I believed showed she’d learned.

Meanwhile Emma patiently waited for me to understand.  Years went by and Emma continued to do her best, hoping, hoping we would finally catch on.  With Soma, Emma wrote how  grateful she was to us, her mom and dad, for “not giving up on me, I was so scared.”  And as I sat watching her type those words I wept.  Tears of gratitude for her, for not giving up on us, but also tears of sadness for all those years… years of misunderstanding, years when we just didn’t know.  Every time I would read about a child who did not speak, or did not have conversations using spoken language, but who typed incredible insights, thoughts and opinions, I believed they were an anomaly.  I didn’t dare believe my child could be like those few who were speaking out.  I didn’t dare hope.  I couldn’t.  It was too painful.

“They say hope is cruel for the hopeless, but maybe they are the cruel ones.”  Emma wrote this the other day and as she wrote those words I reflected on the irony of it all.  One day I hope this idea – that we mustn’t raise false hopes – will no longer be what parents like me are told.  One day I hope those people, the therapists, the educators, all those people, many of whom are in the field of autism, who mean well, but who do not know what our children are capable of, will realize how wrong they are and will stop trying to protect parents like me from what they believe is “false hope”, but it turns out is simply what they do not know and have not yet come to understand.

The hundreds of worksheets...

The hundreds of worksheets…

During the years when we labeled things

During the years when we labeled things

in large print before we knew she could read...

in large print before we knew she could read…

A Typed Conversation With My Daughter

This is the typed “conversation” I had with Emma last night inspired by the wonderful comments left here yesterday.  This was done with very little talking.  Emma’s replies are in italics.

“Hi Emma.  I know one of your favorite songs is “Beat it”.  What other songs do you like?

Emma likes Fireworks.  Emma likes to go swimming.

Hey!  Did you go swimming today?

Yes, it cold go swimming.

Emma, was the water cold or was the air outside cold or both?

 Both cold outside.

It is cold outside now because it is fall.  I like the fall when the air gets colder.  Do you like the fall too?

 Yes, I do like the fall too.

What do you want to do this weekend?

 I want to have a weekend with Jackie at the Vanderbilt wiyemseeay.  And go swimming.”

This was HUGE for Emma and me.  Rereading it now I’m kicking myself that I didn’t ask better questions and follow her lead more instead of directing the conversation.  For example I wish I’d spent more time talking to her about swimming instead of going off about the seasons, which were of little if any interest to her.  I could have asked her a great many questions about the pool and swimming and the water temperature, but didn’t.  I was so surprised when she wrote, “Yes, it cold go swimming.”  I literally laughed out loud when she wrote that, because this is just huge for her to introduce a new thought, to volunteer new information when typing together.  Excitement doesn’t really sum up what I felt.  I was ecstatic!

Emma kept trying to read my typed words out loud, but I reminded her to read silently.  I made a huge number of mistakes while having this conversation with her.  I corrected her spelling a couple of times, and wished I hadn’t.  I never know whether it’s best to let her spell things and go over the spelling later, separately or whether its better to correct it right away or better to leave it alone.  I wanted her to feel encouraged, supported and cheered on, not criticized.  So that’s something I am still questioning.  I also get so excited when she says anything off the grid, I get overwhelmed and can’t think what to say other than – “OMG you just introduced a new topic and I’m so excited!!”  Maybe I can learn to relax a little and go with it a bit more.  I am also aware that my excitement is an example of my NOT assuming competence or rather it is me feeling euphoric that Em shows her vast intelligence in a way that my NT brain can grasp.  I really want to learn how to move away from that limited thinking on my part.

When Emma was diagnosed with autism I remember that first day when all the therapists came to our home to work with her.  I’d done my homework, read all the materials the agency provided me with and then some.  Yet, I remember how everything was “dumbed down”.  Things that I knew she knew were treated as though she didn’t know them.  Really simple things were suddenly a huge deal if she indicated she knew them.  I remember vividly my confusion.  I began to doubt everything I thought I knew or assumed about Emma.  I completely capitulated to some set idea about my daughter given by a group of people who had never met her but made assumptions based on a single word – Autistic.

I’m old enough and have enough humility to admit I don’t know what I’m doing a great deal of the time.  This is not a popular statement in our culture of bullshit reigning supreme, even if it’s all a lie, even if it means people who know almost nothing about a given topic, but who claim “expertise” are suddenly seen as having something sensible to say.  The art of bullshit has become a well honed skill by about the age of ten these days.  It’s amazing how quickly children learn to adopt it.  Add a little chutzpah and you’ve got a kid who will go far in this world of ours without being particularly knowledgable in anything.

However, the art of bullshit requires a couple of things –  a massive dose of ego and an ability to lie.  My daughter Emma has neither of these.  Still, I am feeling confident she will do well in this crazy world of ours.

The ongoing construction of the Freedom Tower

Look! She’s a Therapist, She’s a Teacher, No She’s a Mom

Sometimes it all feels wrong.  You know?  We’ve been working with Emma on her literacy, reading, writing, typing and then a couple of months ago I just couldn’t keep doing it.  I hit a wall.  I kept telling myself, you’re just tired.  You’ll get back in the saddle, give yourself a break, you’ll feel more energetic, you will.  You just need a little break.

But now it’s several months since I gave myself that little talk and I am no closer to “getting back into the saddle” than the day I said all of that.  And here’s the thing…  when Em was first diagnosed, we did what everyone advised us to do.  We fought and were given 40 hours of ABA, we were trained to continue the ABA after the therapists went home and during the weekends.  Emma was bombarded.  We called it baby boot camp.  It was horrible.  I hated it.  I remember saying to the diminishing few who’d listen, But I don’t want to be Emma’s therapist.  I want to be her mother.

I use to sit with Nic and Em in our big rocking chair, we still have it.  We still fight over who gets to sit in it, though these days, Richard has successfully commandeered it as his own.  But when the children were still little, it was mine, all mine and I’d sit in it with both children in my lap, holding them, rocking them.  Smelling their heads, that smell that only small children have, that smell that no one’s managed to bottle, but that if anyone did, they’d make millions off all us moms.  I loved my new role as mom and I wasn’t thrilled to trade it in for therapist/autism mom extraordinaire.

What was so wild about those early days was how all the “experts” I listened to, I believed they knew better than me.  Despite the fact I kept reading the masses of research saying how little we actually knew, how much we had to learn, there was never any shortage of people who seemed to think they knew it all.  Funny that I never thought to question them in the beginning.  Or more accurately, I did question them, but I tamped those questions down because I so wanted to believe, I needed to believe that someone somewhere knew what the hell they were talking about.

But they didn’t.  Not really.  They certainly didn’t know about Emma.  Every single thing anyone in the field of autism predicted about Emma has proven incorrect.  Everything.  It’s kind of astounding.  But it’s true.  “Oh, she’ll be mainstreamed by the time she’s in kindergarten” they assured us, always with the codicil, “if you keep doing ______  (fill in the blank).”  “You’re fortunate she’s so mild.  She’ll be one of those kids who loses the diagnosis,” they’d say with a tone of certainty.  And so we put our better judgment aside, we tamped down our questions, we trained, we worked with her, we questioned her, we showed her the flash cards with the bike and the green t-shirt and the yellow car, we played umpteen games of peek-a-boo and sang the ABC song and Head, shoulders, knees and toes for the nine hundredth time, never questioning why we were doing this.  Never asking ourselves, is this really the best way to spend our time with her?  Are any of these things remotely meaningful to her or are we doing this because this is what a neurotypical child would sing or play?  That Emma was not a neurotypical child was, evidently, not the point.

Now Emma’s ten.  If you ask her, she’ll tell you she’s nine.  I keep meaning to teach her the old, don’t-you-know-its-rude-to-ask-a-lady-her-age routine, thus letting her off the hook.  Because really, who cares?  We ask each other questions like “how old are you,” which is equivalent to the adult question, “what do you do?” but it’s really a way to fill in the silence.  A silence that can be painful.  A silence that doesn’t right the feeling that it’s all wrong.  So we fill it in with words and ideas and studies and tests, but we don’t stop to think, what exactly are we testing?  What exactly are we studying?  What exactly are we doing?  If we test someone and make conclusions based in neurotypical thinking aren’t we missing the point?

I spoke with an Autistic friend yesterday.  She told me she was given a standard IQ test where she proceeded to get every single answer right, so they kept giving it to her, trying to figure out how it was that she was getting all those answers right because she presented as having so many other “issues” and was clearly autistic, they concluded that something was wrong with the way the test was being given.  Meanwhile she thought it all great fun and each time they gave the test to her, she just dug in and cheerfully gave all the correct answers again and again, confounding them.

Which brings me back to all these therapies that require parents to become teacher and therapist.  I’m not a teacher for good reason.  I do not have the skills or the desire to be.  And while I’ve stepped up to the proverbial plate again and again to do what needed to be done, I don’t want to continue.  I want to be Emma’s mom.  I like being Emma’s mom.  I love reading to her and playing with her and dancing with her and being silly and making stupid faces and making up ridiculous sounding laughs and running around pretending to be a monster and cooking with her and showing her how to fold and sort the laundry and how to brush her hair and give her pedicures and manicures and run through the sprinklers together.  I don’t want to be her teacher too.

And maybe, just maybe I don’t have to be.  Maybe all those experts and autism specialists are wrong.  Maybe I can just be her Mom and that’s enough.

Fear = Feel Everything And Remain

Fear.  It creeps up on me, seemingly without warning.  Sometimes I get hit with it while brushing my teeth or waiting with my son, Nic, for his school bus or when I am walking to my studio.  Like a person suddenly appearing in front of me, it startles me every time.

There are phrases using fear as an acronym, such as:  F*ck Everything And Run, or False Evidence Appearing Real, or Failure Expected And Received, or Frantic Effort to Appear Real.  I like some of those, but the thing that I’ve found helps the most is to admit I’m feeling fearful out loud.  To “out” it.  To not allow it to sit, twisting and turning in my gut, while pretending it isn’t there.  Pretending it isn’t there rarely helps.  On the other hand, allowing myself to go into intricate detail about it often makes it worse, like feeding a dragon, or adding fuel to a fire, (pick a cliche) so it seems there’s a balance needed.  Feeling the fear, acknowledging it, and then trying to trudge along anyway, or do as my favorite saying regarding fear – feel the fear and do it anyway.  The “it” is often a moving target, particularly as this morning’s fear is all around future thinking involving Emma.

Which leads me to the two most detrimental things that lead me to despair faster than anything else when it comes to my daughter – future thinking and comparing her to others.  Compare and despair, they say.  Deadly.  It is deadly and it doesn’t matter whether I am comparing her to another autistic child or a neuro-typical, it is deadly.  I try to cut that one off at the pass.  If I see it coming I try to turn my back.  “Don’t go there,” I tell myself.  Sometimes it’s impossible, large gatherings with other children are the worst and sometimes it’s impossible  to avoid.  Sometimes I have to sit and hope it just washes over me and leaves.  I hope there will only be a few waves of it.  I hope I’ll be able to stay upright.  I hope that I’ll be strong enough not to cave under the weight.

That’s the thing about fear, it can be so all encompassing, so random, so…  sprawling.

Make a list.  This is an action step I take when I feel as though I can’t breathe.  Make a list.  Prioritize.  What needs to be done?  This past month I have not been as diligent with Emma’s “study room” and she has not been progressing as rapidly as she had been, so I’ll need to figure out how to manage my time better to get back to that.  Emma’s literacy program is one that continues to fill me with hope and gives me energy.  Seeing her progress with her reading and writing has been the single most helpful thing in keeping the fear at bay.  When Emma was stalled out, not moving forward, those were the darkest times.  As long as she continues to progress, her self-portrait, her letter, her writing about going to the zoo, are examples and the things I cling to like so many scraps of wood in the middle of an ocean of fear.  Just keep my head above the water, just hold on, keep treading, keep breathing, it will be okay.  It will be okay.

Make a list.  Check.

Don’t pretend I’m not feeling the fear.  Out it.  Check.

Feel it.  Check.

Keep moving forward.  Check.

I know these things won’t remove the fear, I know they won’t completely eradicate it, but they are the things I know to do that will help, even if not in this next moment, but in the next few hours, the next few days, the fear will dissipate.  It always does.  Take a deep breath.

FEAR = Feel Everything And Remain

To read my most recent Huffington Post, click ‘here.’

To read my guest post on Special, click ‘here

An Easter Party and An Excuse to Wear a Pretty Dress

Emma and I did some work yesterday morning, on her reading, writing and typing.  This is the “story” she wrote:

“I can’t wait for our Easter party!

I am going to wear a pretty dress.

I love to wear pretty dresses.

I am excited to see Max. I am excited to see cousin Alexandra and Jackie too.”

Sadly, I do not have a photograph of Emma wearing her pretty party dress because I got a late start on cooking, what with decorating Easter eggs to resemble farm animals…

and birds…

bird's nest

of all types…

There were chocolate eggs that needed to be hidden for the Easter “Egg” hunt, thankfully Richard did a superb job with that and came up with some very creative places to hide them, including inside one of our speakers, where they will remain lodged forever.  We invited 13 people over due to arrive at 5:00PM  and I was way behind schedule, hadn’t prepared the roasted vegetables, fixed the leg of lamb, prepared the biscuits, the appetizers or the berries and whipped cream and it was already 3:00PM. (Gulp!)

Emma donned her pretty party dress and whirled about while listening to a medley of her current favorites, MIchael Jackson, Dionne Warwick, The BeeGees and Led Zeppelin.  You have to hand it to her, the kid has a wide and varied taste in music!

Emma had been looking forward to our “Easter Party” for weeks.  We had gone over the list of people countless times.  She fixated on a few of those people, talking about them over and over again.  We did a countdown of how many hours until they would arrive.  And then when the first person arrived Emma squealed in delight and raced to the door.  When cousin Alexandra arrived, Emma could barely look at her, she was so overwhelmed.  The same happened when Jackie appeared.  It was as though it were all too much.  The very sight of these much anticipated arrivals was more than she could take.  “Max is coming!” she said over and over again.  Max had called ahead to inform us that he would be late.
“Yes.  Max will be here in another 20 minutes or so,” we answered.

“Max is late,”  Emma stated, nodding her head and looking sad.

“But he’ll be here soon,” we reassured her.

When Max finally arrived, Emma put her hand in front of her eyes, as though he were as bright as the sun and the glare was too much for her.  Meanwhile I was busy getting the leg of lamb out of the oven and serving everyone a cheddar-chive biscuit.  “Where’s Em?” I asked Richard at one point.

“She’s hiding,” he said.

I found Emma crouched behind the couch, her head down, almost touching the floor.  “Emmy, what are you doing?”  I asked.  When she didn’t respond I said, “Come sit with us at the table.”  Reluctantly she sat down, next to Jackie and across from Max.  She kept her head and eyes lowered and wouldn’t look at either of them.

After an hour or so, Emma was able to raise her head and began playing various games with Max.  By the end of the evening she was beside herself with excitement, fully engaged and talkative.  She said good bye to each guest as they departed, and when Max left she walked him to the door and said, “Bye Max!”  and then she blew him kisses.

For more on Emma’s journey, go to:   Emma’s Hope Book


An Epiphany

I was thinking about progress, Emma’s specifically.  Through the literacy program we embarked on just exactly a year ago now, Emma is reading and writing in full sentences, we are also working on comprehension.  Her language is beginning to change as a direct result of all of this work.  As I was thinking about this yesterday, I realized something that probably seems obvious.

Drum roll please.

If Emma continues to make the sort of progress she’s made in the past year, we have nothing to worry about.

(Richard is yawning right about now.  He has maintained this for years and continually reminds me of it, but when he says it, it seems hard to believe.  Okay, now he’s rolling his eyes and probably has walked away.)

I know this may seem like less an epiphany and more a random thought that anyone who’s been reading this blog will have come to, and probably quite a bit sooner than I have.  But here’s the thing.  Sometimes I am just too close to it all.  I’m in the trenches, working with her, everyday, observing and noting.  But pulling back, taking the longer view, seeing Emma from a distance, well, it’s just much harder for me to gain that perspective.  Whenever I am able to and do though, I can see how far she’s come.  I am filled with excitement with her progress.  And yes, it feels as though I’ve had an epiphany.

Unfortunately I have a short memory.  So it’s important I write this down.  Maybe I’ll even remember to reread this post some day when I have forgotten and am feeling discouraged again.

On April 9th, 2011 we began her first literacy session.  We began with the word “sit.”  Prior to that we had worked on letter formation and sequencing with colored tiles.  From that day in April, Emma is now writing sentences in answer to questions such as – “What is this?”  “What is she doing?”  “What does she want to do?”

This is a sample of Emma’s writing answering those questions from this morning’s “literacy session.”

For more on Emma’s journey through a childhood of autism, go to:   www.Emma’s Hope

Emma’s Literacy

Today Emma wrote the following sentences:

It is a good visual reminder of how nicely she is progressing.  After she wrote these sentences she became frustrated with two longer sentences she was suppose to remember and write.  I finally had to break them down into smaller pieces.  We then worked on reading comprehension.  The idea being – it won’t matter how well she reads if she cannot understand what it is she’s just read.  Like many children on the spectrum, Emma has a tough time saying what a story is about.  So we are slowly trying to build a foundation for her to be able to do so with increasing ease.  At the moment it remains very difficult for her.

Yesterday and this morning have been hard for Emma.  Her routine was interrupted, I spent a good part of yesterday cooking, we had guests for Thanksgiving and though Emma loved having family and friends over and sitting with us at the dinner table, I think the disruption proved tough.  She’s been out of sorts, a little crankier than usual.  This morning she kept insisting she go to the Central Park zoo and the big carousel; all things Richard did with her yesterday.

I never know what the reason is for her steps backwards, particularly when we can also see her many steps forward.  I keep hoping things will just move forward with no steps back, but this is unrealistic.  I know.  I have to keep my eye on the bigger picture and not get weighed down with the little daily upsets.  As we worked together this morning we had to stop several times as she became too upset to continue.  Her frustration is in glaring evidence during these moments.  She clenches her fist, hits her legs or pinches herself, so we had to stop each time and wait.  I understand how frustrating it must be to not be able to make the words come out right, to not be able to retain a seven or eight word sentence, to want to give up.

“We have to keep trying, Em.  I know it’s hard, but you can’t give up.”

“I know,” she said, nodding her head and looking sad.  “I know.  We have to do it again.”

“That’s right, Em.  You’re doing great.”

“Last time.”

“We’ll do it until you get it.”

“Okay.  Last time.”

And then she did it perfectly.

For more on Emma’s journey through a childhood of autism, go to:   www.Emma’s Hope

Literacy, Diets, Progress

Dr. Marion Blank has written a terrific piece for the Huffington Post regarding the 60 minutes segment on APPs for autism and the current ways in which language is taught.  For anyone with even a passing interest in language or autism, I encourage the reading of it.

An update on Emma, her diet, her progress:

Emma ate about three tablespoons of chicken and brown rice two nights ago and tasted the pumpkin mousse I made.  I will attempt to make coconut milk whipped cream this evening in preparation for our Thanksgiving feast.  I want to have several things Emma might like, so I am planning to prepare Maple Syrup glazed Turkey, roasted carrots and sweet potatoes and some kind of desert she might enjoy (she didn’t love the pumpkin mousse or pumpkin scones, so I’ll try some other recipes) as well as things the rest of us will enjoy – we are having between 12 – 15 people, many of whom are bringing things!  I am thinking of writing a cookbook entitled All The Delicious Things I’ve Made That Emma Won’t Eat.

I worried the other day (someone pointed out that I am always worrying about something – I blame my mother for this – she is a known worrier, plus I’m a New Yorker so there’s no hope for me) that Emma is just as rigid now as she was before the diet.  Instead of only eating six things, all of which were dairy or wheat, she now eats six other things, but as Richard pointed out, at least they aren’t dairy and wheat.  I think my expectations were high (they tend to be) when we began the diet; I had read in many cases the child, once off dairy and wheat, expanded their diet dramatically.  Don’t get me wrong, it is wonderful to see Emma eating brown rice and roasted chicken.  In fact it’s a huge achievement on her part.  I’m taking a deep breath now and will bask in the glow of brown rice and chicken.

Okay.  Now that I am filled with gratitude, to continue –

To date we have seen no identifiable cognitive or behavioral progress as a result of this diet.  We see her doctor in another three weeks.  I am still hopeful we might see something by then.

We received a report from her school that Emma threw a chair across the room on at least two occasions and pulled one of the TAs hair.  Obviously this is not good news.

Another deep breath, focusing on the joys of brown rice and roasted chicken.

For more on Emma’s journey through a childhood of autism, go to:   www.Emma’s Hope

Emma’s Story

This is the story Emma made up and wrote this morning before she went to school.

I had to give her support a couple of times when she would say a word, such as “the” or “to” but then would forget to actually write it and wrote the next word (always a noun or verb) instead.  According to Dr. Marion Blank, the woman who created the literacy program we have been using with Emma for the past nine months, children on the spectrum dislike non-content words.

Emma then took her story over to her dad and read it to him!

We first met Dr. Blank almost a year ago now.  Before that first meeting we both read her book “The Reading Remedy” and were impressed by it.  In January of 2011 we began implementing her program with Emma.  During those first few months we worked on the beginning of letter formations and sequencing.  In April Emma was able to form all the letters of the alphabet and we began the first level of the literacy program.  Over the last seven months Dr. Blank has added other elements to the program, specifically designed for Emma so that we now are working on a spoken language program in conjunction with the literacy piece as well as the Phonics Plus Five and Reading Kingdom programs.

For more on Emma’s journey through a childhood of autism, go to:   www.Emma’s Hope

Amanda Boxtel

Last night Richard and I went to a launch party here in New York City of Ekso Bionics with a live demonstration by Amanda Boxtel.  Amanda was in a skiing accident over 20 years ago, which left her a paraplegic.  For more than two decades Amanda has lived her life from a wheel chair.

This photo is out of focus and does not do Amanda justice.

Amanda demonstrates the power of Ekso Bionics

This quote is from Amanda’s website.

“Imagine wanting something so badly for years and years—fluctuating between acceptance of what is and hope for something better.  Imagine if that one thing you longed for is to stand tall with your legs supporting your full body weight, and then taking your first step.”

When we took Emma to Costa Rica for her first stem cell treatment, fluid seeped from her spine into her blood stream.  Suddenly she was in excruciating pain and Richard and I were terrified.  Amanda wrote me and her letter, one of many I have kept, was a calm voice of strength and reassurance.  Amanda has been to India six times for stem cell treatments.  She is an inspiration and source of hope for all.

Watching Amanda stand and then walk last night was a visual confirmation of what is possible in this world, if we never give up.  I think of Amanda often as I work with my daughter, Emma. Writing is difficult for Emma, it does not come easily.  But then walking does not come easily to Amanda either and yet she has never allowed that to slow her down.

Emma’s writing from this morning

For more on Emma’s journey through a childhood of autism, go to:

“I Am In Here” – Autism

There’s a terrific new book entitled:  I am in here:  The Journey of a Child with Autism Who Cannot Speak But Finds Her Voice by Elizabeth M. Bonker and Virginia G. Breen.  The title is a line from the poem  Me written by Elizabeth when she was 9.   The story is yet another example of a nonverbal child with autism who was helped by Soma Mukhopadhyay’s Rapid Prompting Method.  Elizabeth’s mother, Virginia has tried any number of therapies with the hope that something, anything will help her daughter.  It is not a story about a cure, but rather a message of hope in the face of continual struggle and perseverance.

Virginia writes about using a three pronged approach in her battle with autism – Mind (academics), body (biomedical interventions and diets) and Spirit (the more difficult concept of something greater than ourselves, which Elizabeth seems to have a solid grasp of.)  The mind, body & spirit concept particularly resonated with me as it was this very idea which captured my grandfather, Walter Paepcke’s imagination when he envisioned a place of contemplation and learning in his creation of what came to be known as the “Aspen Idea” more than 60 years ago in Aspen, Colorado.

I can claim full allegiance to the mind and body portion of this, however I must admit the spiritual piece continues to allude me.  Though a close friend of mine said to me recently that for a person who professes not to believe, I certainly spend a great deal of time thinking, reading and discussing the subject.  She then said, “It’s kind of like the wife who’s husband everyone knows is having an affair.  She’s the last to know.”  When I answered her with a perplexed look, she said somewhat exasperated, “Come on, Ariane.  You’re the most spiritual non-spiritual person I’ve ever met.”

I’m pretty sure she meant that as a compliment.

For more on our journey with Emma through her childhood marked by autism, go to:   Emma’s Hope Book

A Written Conversation – Autism

Yesterday afternoon, Emma said, “These kids do not want to eat bugs.”  Then she squinted her eyes and laughed, making her shoulders shake up and down.  It was a creative version of some of the work we’ve been doing during her literacy program.  We’ve been working on sentences such as – These are kids, they want to rest.  They are resting.  Or  This is a plane.  It can fly, but someone has to make it fly.

“That’s funny, Em.  Let’s type that.”  I pulled the computer forward and gestured toward it.

Em sat down and muttered, “Shift,” as she pressed the shift key with her right index finger while simultaneously pressing the “t” on the keyboard.  She then went on to type the sentence, only needing help with remembering to include the word “do”.  I then typed back a nonsense question – “Do they want to eat birds?”

Emma giggled and shook her head no.

I pushed the computer toward her.  “Type,” I said.

“No, they do not want to eat birds,” she wrote, being sure she made an upper case “n” for the start of the sentence.

“What do they want to eat?”  I typed.

Emma looked at me.  I shook my head, putting a finger to my lips and pushed the keyboard toward her.

Very slowly she typed, “They want to eat co”.  She smiled at me.  “Cookies,” she whispered.  “I need help.  Mommy hold hand.”

Cookies is not a word we’ve covered yet, so I held her hand and helped her type – cookies.

My typed conversation with Emma

For more on Emma’s journey through a childhood of autism, go to:  Emma’s Hope

Autism’s Murky Future

Yesterday the New York Times ran a front page piece entitled – Autistic and Seeking a Place in an Adult World.  I am always so grateful when I see anything on autism, even when I am not told anything I don’t already know.  I am particularly grateful when I see something on autism on the front page of the New York Times.  For those of us who are parents of a child with autism, the looming question of what will happen when our child becomes an adult is something we do not have the luxury to ignore.  Yet, the answer is not readily available to us, either.  There is no road map by which we can look to.  The future of our children is very much up in the air.  It is a tricky balance keeping the fear at bay, while also being practical and realistic about ones child’s future and how we might ensure she is taken care of should she not be able to hold down a job and live independently.

My message of hope on The Hope Installation at the entrance to the High Line

The truth is we cannot know what Emma will be like in another eight years, all we can do is continue to work as intensely and extensively with her as we currently are.

So this evening when I come home from work, I will work on the word – does.  After we spend an hour or so going over the word, both using it in hand written sentences and as well as typing sentences with it, we will also use the word verbally as when I lay out a frog, a boy, a bus and a dog and say, “Hand me the one who does not eat.”  After we have done all of that we will play some games using the word “does” and finally we will go over a list of words she has already learned and review them.  Somewhere during all of this – dinner will be prepared, Nic’s homework will get done, stories will be read and everyone will eventually go to bed.

For more on Emma’s journey through a childhood of autism, go to:

A Work In Progress

As we have added more work to Emma’s already busy schedule, I have had to adjust my own schedule to accommodate.  Since her new school year began this week, I am now doing her literacy session before the bus comes to take her to school in the morning, while Richard gets Nic ready.

This morning we worked on the word “boy”.  Emma wrote this in answer to my question – “Are these boys?”

“What are they?”

Wait for it…

Yes, they most certainly are!

The beauty of this is that all of it is done non-verbally.  Emma is able to concentrate fully on answering the questions posed by either writing or typing the sentences on the computer.  Today she learned how to use the shift key while hitting the appropriate letter to create an upper case letter to mark the beginning of a sentence.  The grin on her face when she wrote:  “Here are some boys.  They are sitting.” complete with punctuation and upper case letters for the “H” and the “T” was as close to euphoria as one can get.  She even giggled when she was finished and beamed at me with pride.

This is the dress Emma chose to wear to school today.

For more on Emma’s journey through a childhood of autism, go to:

We Have to Keep Trying – Autism

When Emma was first diagnosed, she was four months away from her third birthday.  Since that fall, now seven years ago, we continue to show up for her in ways we could not have imagined.  As many of you with a child with autism know, engaging your child can be complicated.  Emma cannot have a “conversation” the way her neuro-typical brother, Nic can.  We cannot have discussions with her, there is no easy back and forth of ideas and opinions.  Because Emma is rigid in her desires, outings can become problematic if they are not kept to a strict schedule.  The central park carousel must be ridden and then we must go to the zoo, but only after we have watched the brass animals go around when the clock strikes every half hour.  Once in the zoo we must watch the seals being fed and then go see the penguins, followed by the aging and now blind seal, then the polar bear and finally a visit to the bats, before we can leave.  Often Emma will then insist on a visit to the petting zoo where she is more interested in patting the metal replicas of the animals, which then make the appropriate animal sounds, than the real animals.

When both the children were toddlers we were frequent visitors to the American Museum of Natural History on the upper west side of Manhattan.  During the winter months I often took the children four or five times a week.

“Once the kids are older, I hope never to go to that museum again,” I grumbled to Richard one afternoon after an exhaustive five hours spent there.  “And can we add every playground that exists?”  I added.

And then we got the diagnosis and everything was up for grabs.

My time with Emma now includes listening to music and dancing together, walks and yes, lots of playgrounds, amusement parks, the zoo, the various carousels the city has to offer, swimming, but also reading and her literacy program.  Richard still takes Emma to see “the snake bite boy”, which is Emma’s name for the American Museum of Natural History.  But it is during Emma’s “study room” sessions that I see her progress in real, identifiable and concrete ways.  It doesn’t matter whether I am feeling optimistic or not, the evidence is there, right in front of me.  We have kept a record of those first hours when she was learning to form the letter “a” to now, when she is struggling to write two and three sentences at a time.

This morning was a difficult session.  She was required to write three sentences from memory.  At a certain point I said, “We cannot give up, Em.  We have to keep trying.  I know it’s hard, but you can do this.”

Those words were probably more meaningful to me, than to her.  They would be an apt mantra for me to repeat to myself every morning.

No matter what, we cannot ever give up.  We have to keep trying.

For more on Emma’s journey through a childhood of autism, go to: