Tag Archives: Gestalt learning

I Will Not Model Compliance For My Child

“Look! Motorcycle bubbles!”  This was a phrase Emma used to say often.  It was an all-encompassing phrase that was both a metaphor for rain and the Fourth of July and New Years Eve fireworks, as well as a descriptive phrase of what both are like sensorily for her. (Emma has verified this is true.)  “Motorcycle bubbles” meant rain and fireworks, but there was so much more to those two words than simply pointing out the window and saying, “Look!  It’s raining!”  or “Look at the fireworks!”

When I went back through this blog to find the post I’d written about motorcycle bubbles, I found these, “Sorry Bubbles” and Em & The 4-Wheeler  written more than two years ago, that I’d completely forgotten about.  “Motorcycle bubbles” and her related phrase, “Sorry bubbles” are nothing short of poetic.  Poetry is all about using words in unusual, unexpected ways, “Sorry bubbles”  Great art evokes an emotional response within us.  While, a few years ago, I was appreciative of the beauty of phrases such as “sorry bubbles”, I was even aware of the emotional tug I felt when I heard her say those words, that appreciation was tempered by worry and concern about what I believed the larger issues were for my child who said such fascinating, yet cryptic, words.

I no longer feel the strain of worry and concern, but rather delight in my daughter’s obvious brilliance and poetic gifts.   I am grateful to have gotten to this place of appreciation and joy.  So many autism specialists and so-called treatments did not and do not appreciate the beauty of those word combinations.  So many believed they were aberrant, meaningless words that must be righted through rote learning and repetition of more “appropriate” words.  Which was code for “use these conventional words, so that we can understand you more easily.   Make our lives easier.  Behave in ways that do not draw attention to you.  Be like everyone else.”  And all of this was done under the guise of “helping”.  Meanwhile “motorcycle bubbles” and the like would be bulldozed, covered with the dirt of more conventional language.

People argue that our children need to learn to “fit in” that it is our job to teach them these skills and to not do so is to be negligent or (at the very least) unrealistic about life and the world.  But for those like my daughter, asking her to spend so much of her energy and time to try to change the way she moves (were that even in the realm of possibilities), forcing her to give up her string (which marks her as different), trying to get her to substitute her string for a more “socially acceptable” object, teaching her to swallow her verbal utterances that to others seem nonsensical, forcing her, every time she said anything, to repeat a more conventional way of speaking, even if all of this were remotely possible, I ask WHY?

Why would we do this?  Why is all of that more important than giving her the freedom, support and encouragement to be her unique and beautiful self?  Why is quelling her natural tendencies so desirable?  Why is tamping down her poetic phrases, replacing them with more standard, “accepted” speech preferable?  Why is all of this considered desirable given the massive toll all of that takes on her?  Even if she could do any of these things, even if all of it were obtainable goals, how exhausting, how bone-numbingly frightening, how terrifyingly isolating it would be to grow up believing that everything about you was fundamentally wrong.

I’m not interested in grooming my child to be something she is not, demanding that she be someone, that even if it were possible for her to attempt, would make her feel awful about herself, just so society could feel better about its own mediocrity.  I’m not willing to do that.  The only thing I care about, the only thing I’m interested in, is changing society’s views and the only way that’s going to happen is by countering what is considered the “norm” and saying, NO!  I’m not going along with it.  NO!  I am not going to raise my child to be compliant or train her to say what you want to hear or try to force her to move in ways that society has deemed acceptable.  I will not model compliance for my child to imitate.  I do not condone censorship that would bury “motorcycle bubbles” and “sorry bubbles” forever.

(Chou Chou – This photo’s for you!)
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The Problem with “Use Your Words”

How many of us have uttered those three words to our kids?

Use your words!

And yet, if your child is like mine, they probably do use words.  Perhaps they “script”, words we dismiss because we recognize them from a movie, or perhaps we hear the tone and recognize it as echolalia and therefore  ignore.  Maybe we think of the words as a verbal stim or maybe we hear that those words come from a teacher, the bus driver, another kid, a friend, us…  and again we dismiss them as meaningless.  But what if we are wrong?  What if all those words our kids are nobly attempting to use ARE communicating something, but it is US who cannot make the connection?  What if our kids do not learn language as we think of language being learned, but they are learning it, in their own way, on their own timeline?  What if all those words they keep using, the ones we are told to ignore or not reinforce by acknowledging, are HOW they are learning to speak?

I am currently reading Marge Blanc’s book, Natural Language Acquisition on the Autism Spectrum: The Journey from Echolalia to Self-Generated Language
and these are but a few of the questions being answered.  One thing I have not yet seen or can find in this terrific book is any mention of Tourette’s.  I am curious to know the authors opinion on how Tourette’s factors into language acquisition or if it even does.  Marge, if you’re reading this, I’m hoping you’ll comment!

In those early, blurred years after Emma’s diagnosis I remember thinking that any language was good language.  And then my daughter began to say things, things I could not and did not understand and I was told, those are meaningless words, you must ignore them, you must not reinforce them.  But maybe, just maybe those words are the foundation for others that I and others will be able to understand at some point.  My friend Ibby, of the fabulous blog, Tiny Grace Notes, told me more than a year ago about the importance of not trying to do a word for word translation of the things my daughter said, but rather to lean into the words.  I couldn’t fully understand what she was telling me at the time, but slowly I have begun to.

Marge Blanc writes, “As we valiantly try to replace our kids’ echolalia, their natural language, we feel validated when they learn to say new things.  We teach our kids a dozen functional phrases and sentences and feel satisfied that we have taught “functional speech.”  The tragedy is that while IEP goals are met, children’s linguistic potential has been ignored – and undermined.  We have forgotten how to assess a child’s developmental language level and his capacity to develop generative language.  And we have also failed to consider that the functional phrases we’ve taught might actually interfere with his potential to develop language competence.  And in the process, the echolalia doesn’t go away.”

Now add to this idea the way we are taught to ignore those scripts, that we mustn’t give them any air to breathe as we will only encourage the proliferation of similar non “language.”  So we smile patiently and nod our heads and say…

Use your words.

But not those words.  Use these words.  The words I want to hear.  The words I am now going to repeat and have you say over and over with the hope that you will say these words, my words, in place of yours.  Isn’t that really what we mean when we say “use your words”?  Use words I want to hear.  Use words I give you, but don’t, please don’t use YOUR words.

Over a year ago I wrote about how Emma advocated for herself on the school bus.  You can read that post ‘here‘.  What I didn’t spend a great deal of time talking about was how she tried, repeatedly to “use her words” but was not listened to because they did not believe she understood what she was saying.  It was only after many attempts of using the only words she knew, “you’re going the wrong way!”  “Emma goes to a different school!”  and “you have to go this way!” that she began to scream and then bite herself and eventually punch herself in the face.  Even then, when she fell to the floor of the bus, refusing to get off, crying and hurting herself, even then they continued to not listen to the words she was saying and using and insisted she get off the bus.  It was only when one of the staff at her old school heard her and recognized her and thought to tell the driver that yes, she was correct and no longer went to this school, that she was on the wrong bus, it was only then that they dialed my number and told me my daughter was refusing to go to school, and as it turns out, rightfully so.  They had taken her to the wrong school.

When they brought her home she was devastated.  I will never forget the look on her face as she descended the steps of that bus.  Before her feet hit the ground I said, “You are so awesome Emma!  You told them this wasn’t your bus.   You told them they were going the wrong way!  I am so proud of you!”  Emma still talks about that morning, that morning over a year ago when she was “using her words” and no one listened.

Use your words.

Waiting for the school bus ~ October 2, 2013
*Em copy