Tag Archives: learning

Methods of Communication – My Research Paper

“To what extent is it possible to compare the ways in which methods of communication are being taught to autistic students who cannot use spoken language to communicate their complex ideas?”


Many autistic students cannot rely on spoken language to communicate their knowledge and ideas. Exactly how many is not known since autism organizations disagree. For example the Diagnostic Center of Central California states, “As many as 50% of individuals with autism are non-verbal and up to 80% are intellectually challenged.”1, while the National Autism Association reports, “About 40% of children with autism do not speak”2 and Autism Speaks weighs in with, “It is estimated that as many as 25% of individuals living with autism spectrum disorders are non-verbal.”3 “Nonverbal,” is an inaccurate term that implies the inability to speak at all, however it includes many who can and do speak words, but do not speak in ways that non-autistic people are able to understand. There is no term for those who can and do speak, but cannot rely on their speech to reflect the whole of their thinking. As a result of this misunderstanding and inaccurate terminology, many autistic students are believed incompetent and are relegated to remedial special education classrooms and schools. All of this is exacerbated by a body that does not obey the commands given to it, and IQ tests, which perpetuate the myth that non-speaking Autistic people have low intelligence. The latter is something that is now being questioned more and more, as demonstrated in this 2015 article for IAN (Interactive Autism Network), “…it cautions that measuring a child’s intellectual ability may be complicated by the symptoms of autism itself.”4 The well rounded education available to students in the general education population is not available to autistic students unless they are given a means to express themselves. However most communication methods involve pictures, symbols and rudimentary phrases such as, “yes,” “no,” “maybe,” “I don’t know,” “I want…” “I need…,” etc. These words and phrases do not demonstrate or allow for deeper thinking, and so it cannot be known exactly what is in a person’s mind who does not have access to more complex vocabulary whether through spoken language or a communication device. As a result, this paper will analyze “To what extent is it possible to compare the ways in which methods of communication are being taught to autistic students who cannot use spoken language to communicate their complex ideas?”

This study will establish the procedure for a survey conducted where the participants are either without speech ability or with speech, but are unable to rely on spoken language to express their complex thinking, knowledge and ideas. The data collected from this survey will be analyzed and discussed and finally this paper will explore ways to move forward based on the collected data and survey findings.

The Survey & How it Was Created

Since many existing communication methods are underrepresented in most schools, I created a survey to find out what methods students use, what they are being taught to use and how successful each method is. Additionally I was curious to know whether a student’s school allowed the communication method chosen by each student to be the most beneficial, and if not, how the student then communicated their complex thinking, knowledge and understanding of the material being taught. The survey used a google form and was anonymous. The people I hoped would participate was anyone who cannot use spoken language to convey their complex thinking, those who cannot rely on spoken language most of the time, those in school or of school age regardless of whether they attend an actual school, are homeschooled, unschooled, take online classses or a combination of all of these. I encouraged anyone who no longer was in school to take the survey by remembering their experience of school. The last group I hoped would take my survey were parents and support persons of students who are beginning to use other methods of communication, but have not yet mastered them and cannot answer open-ended questions on their own. Of this group, I asked they make sure they said who they were when taking the survey so it was clear they were speaking on their student/child’s behalf to the best of their ability and not as the student.

There are a few limitations to this paper that must be discussed. The first was my inability to reach a more diverse population. I attempted to do so, but most of the people who responded were white students who live in the United States. Another limitation is that it is impossible to include the large percentage of students who cannot rely on spoken language to convey their knowledge and thoughts and have not been given the opportunity to communicate through any other means besides spoken language. These students cannot write to communicate because they have not been given the means to do so, thus the survey was unable to reach them.

The data collected from the respondents demonstrated strong parental advocacy, which was reflected in the schools and homeschooling choices available to these students versus those who do not have such choices available to them. As a result, many of the answers show a positive schooling experience as opposed to those who have not been given the opportunity to communicate through other means and cannot rely on spoken language to convey their thinking and knowledge. It cannot be known how those students view their experience in schools or in the world as this survey could not reach them.

In an effort to make the survey easier for the largest number of non speakers, the majority of questions were multiple choice or required short sentence answers. Of the 34 questions asked, 16 were multiple choice and 10 demanded answers of three words or less, such as “How old are you?” and “On average, how long does it take you to answer an open-ended question?” Eight questions encouraged longer answers, such as, “What, if any, method(s) do you use to communicate complex ideas, thoughts and knowledge? Please explain the method” however of those eight questions, five were required. The remaining three were optional questions that the participant did not need to answer if they chose not to. Four of the 34 questions were contingent upon a specific answer making at least three of the questions moot points and therefore not required. A participant was also able to write NA if they chose or some other wording on questions they did not, or could not, answer.

The first 9 questions established the demographic of the participants. The next 13 questions concerned the type of communication methods tried and currently used, and whether these were allowed and used in the student’s school. This was followed by 8 questions pertaining to learning, the school environment, and whether the staff was able to support the student in their chosen method of communication. The final 4 questions asked the participant for more detailed suggestions for administration, teachers, support persons, parents and other comments and thoughts relevant to communication methods.

The targeted participant was reached through my blog, Emma’s Hope Book, where I wrote a post explaining my research paper and why I created a survey. At the end of the post I included a link to the survey and encouraged people to complete it. The post was entitled, Have Your Voice Heard!5 In addition, I shared the blog post on my blog’s Facebook page – Emma’s Hope Book and two days later shared just the link to the survey with a reminder asking people to share on their Facebook timelines. My mother shared my blog post on Facebook and Twitter and sent personal emails to people she knew with children who cannot use spoken language to communicate.

Survey Response

94 people participated in the survey and ranged in age from three and a half to fifty-five years old, though the majority, 85.1% of respondents were between 7 and 29 years old. Five of the respondents were six years old or younger and nine respondents were older than 29 years old. 45% of the respondents were male, 38.3% were female and 13.8% of the respondents identified as either “Omni”, “trans”, “non-binary”, “binary”, “gendervague”, “genderfluid”, “neutrois”, “two-spirit” or a combination of these, while 1% identified as “Child” and another 1% answered, “I don’t know” and “I don’t.” 77.7% (73) of the respondents identified as white, 5% of mixed ethnicity, 4% as either “Hispanic”, “Latina”, “Latino” or “Mexican-American”, 3% “Asian”, 1% identified as black, and the remaining respondents identified with the name of the country they were from or some other word that does not indicate gender, such as “human”. The failure of this survey to reach more minorities was noted and while it is believed students in minority groups are not given an autism diagnosis as readily as white students, it was certainly a problem that this survey did not reach these minority groups; we could have done more to get in touch with those populations. The 94 respondents came from all over the world, but the vast majority, 65%, live in the United States with almost all states represented except for the southern states, particularly the Deep South, where there were none, with the exception of Georgia. 10% of the respondents came from the United Kingdom, 10% from Europe, 3% from Australia, 2% from Canada and the remaining 10% from other parts of the world. Respondents from Russia, Africa and the Far and Middle East were not reached and, as a result, none participated.

As expected, 93.5% identified as Autistic, while 6.5% did not, since most of the respondents were reached through the personal blog, Emma’s Hope Book – Living, Being Autistic and through the Facebook page of the same name. In answer to the question, “Can you use spoken language to communicate?” 36.6% said they could not use spoken language at all, while 49.4% said they could sometimes, and 14% answered “yes.” Those who answered “sometimes” described a wide range of experiences and abilities. Some were able to speak at least some of the time, others could use spoken language rarely and could not use it ever to express complex ideas, while still others reported being able to use spoken language intermittently depending on the situation. Stressful environments greatly contributed to those, who could use spoken language often, no longer being able to do so. This survey was limited to the types of communication methods being taught in schools, to students who cannot ever rely upon spoken language to convey their thinking and knowledge, versus those chosen by these same students to best communicate. There were 24 respondents whose answers were viewed with great interest, but were set aside as they did not meet the criteria needed to answer the theses question.

Of the remaining 70 respondents, the ratio of male, female, and other changed only slightly to 42.9% male, 35.7% female and 8.6% identified with wording indicating gender fluidity of some kind or wording that was has no gender associated with it, such as “child” and “human”. High school was the highest level of education currently held by the greatest number, 41.4%. 20% of the respondents were in grade school, 17.1% in middle school, 10% were in college or had finished college at the time of taking this survey. 1.4% was in a Ph.D program. 72.9% of the respondents were currently in school of some kind, which included homeschool and online schools. The types of schools varied from special education (34.3%), general education (30%), some type of homeschool (25.7%), Online school (5.7%) and/or a combination of these. 20% of the respondents were not in school of any kind due to their age.

In answer to the question “What, if any, method(s) do you use to communicate complex ideas, thoughts and knowledge?” There were a wide range of answers using a variety of methods, and often multiple methods, but the largest percentage (40.6%) used Rapid Prompting Method (RPM) created by Soma Mukhopadhyay,6 with “typing” (12.5%) and supported typing (12.5%), coming in as distant seconds. The remaining respondents listed the following methods, often used in combination: “letterboard”, “AAC (“Augmentative and Alternative Communication”), “Lamp Words for Life”, PECS (Picture Exchange Communication Systems), “communication cards”, sign language, “Touch Chat”, “Proloquo4text”, “Proloquo2Go”, “Assistive Typing”, “Dynavox”, “Nova Chat”, “PRC (Prentke Romich Company) communication device”, “iPad”, physical gestures, body language, sounds, and noises of some kind. One respondent wrote, “Home: RPM. , School: Gestures, noises, biting, scream.” Of the 70 respondents who cannot ever use speech to communicate their knowledge and thinking they were between the ages of 18 months and 22 years old when they were first exposed to the method of communication, which allows them to communicate their complex thinking, though the majority were between 5 and 13 years old when first exposed to the method they now use to communicate.

Another question, “What other methods were you exposed to before and why were they not effective?” produced myriad responses, with ABA (Applied Behavioral Analysis), speech therapy, and PECS (Picture Exchange Communication System) being the most indicated. Sign Language, DIR (Developmental Individual-difference Relationship-based model), RDI (Relationship Development Intervention) and various other methods using story boards, emotions, charts and yes/no cards were also listed. Many people who listed PECS said that it was “too simple”, “cheap talk” and “limited”. A number of people who listed speech therapy wrote things like, “Speech (can’t speak).”One person wrote, “SLP (Speech-Language Pathology) – cannot speak, ABA – cannot speak, Floortime – cannot speak, Picture Charts – not same as speaking.” Another respondent stated,”SLP – did not help I say what I meant or wanted, Floortime – same as speech, ABA – same, picture symbols – too simple.” A non-speaking respondent reported, “Story board, social stories, and regular language. They were not effective because I am non-verbal and the pictures/stories were too overwhelming to process all at once.” Another wrote, “ABA, it did not presume competence. It did not take into account neurological differences. Speech did not take into account apraxia. RDI was limited in addressing communication using words. Biomedical did more harm than good. OT did not help with communication. Floortime was based on motor abilities I did not have.” Still another wrote, “Speech therapy: the words wouldn’t voice, sign language: I wasn’t able to shape the signs. When I tried I couldn’t manipulate my hands, Proloquo2Go pictures: While I wish I could’ve demonstrated more, motor planning was more than I could do, typing with both hands: Supplying my right and left hand with motor planning wasn’t possible, prompt speech: voicing was only possible while prompted, facilitated typing and writing: people quietly wouldn’t believe my words, handwriting: Nobody could read it.” This respondent, who cannot use spoken language to communicate, wrote, “Speech therapy cannot help brain-to-mouth derailing. Insistent words do not form on lips, add to useless feelings of non-worth. ABA – concentrating on behaviors resulting from volcanic frustration, years of living without light and hope causes more disruption. Learning rules of behavior that motor issues make impossible from people with timers who do not, and will not, ever experience depths of sadness and despair known by those they intend to “help”, is no answer. Lava of heartfelt pain communicates differently. They cannot understand.” Another non-speaking respondent wrote simply, “Lots – not good.” One respondent who identified as being able to speak “sometimes” wrote, “I progressed by speaking in scripts.” A parent reported, “… was being forced to speak all the time by SEITS/therapists. They occasionally used PECS. They did not work on reading/spelling/typing.” Another parent reported, “No progress of any kind was made in the public school system.”

The next question asked, “If you are in school, is this method of communication used/allowed in your school?” Of the 70 respondents who cannot ever use spoken language to communicate their complex thinking, 50% said they were allowed to use their chosen method of communicating at school, though a number of them noted they could not because no one was trained to support them. 28.6% responded that they were not allowed to use their chosen method of communicating at school and the remaining respondents were no longer in school. Of the 50% who were allowed to use their chosen method at school, 52.8% said the staff at their school was not trained in the method of communication of their choosing, while 47.2% reported the staff was. Of these, 52.8% the majority (91.3%) stated their teacher/support person had received training through the school district, through private training provided by the parents and/or DOE or was self initiated. The remaining respondents did not know where the staff had been trained or if they had been trained anywhere. A few respondents indicated they believed the staff was “self-taught.”

In answering the question, “How long has the support person been practicing this method?”most responded with 5 years or less, while one reported “more than 20 years” and another, “10 years.” The number of students this person supported was typically just one and sometimes up to 3. Much rarer was more than 3, though one person reported that the staff supported, “dozens” and another, “12 or more.” Most of the respondents said they were able to communicate with anyone trained to use the method of their choosing, though one person said they could communicate with one person and another reported they could with “a few”. One person typed “zero” suggesting they may have misunderstood the question. The most likely person the respondent was able to communicate with was a parent (82.9%), and 51.4% were able to communicate with a trained person independently employed by the family. 50% reported being able to communicate with a trained staff person. 35.7% said their school did not use the communication method of their choice and they were not allowed to bring a trained support person at their own expense to school so that they could communicate. 20% reported that they were allowed to have a support person come with them. Many (27.2%) reported that as a result they cannot communicate at school or must rely on gesturing, while a couple of respondents reported that they “try to speak” and two people wrote, “PECS”. The remaining respondents did not answer the question.

The following questions asked the respondents to discuss their learning experiences and, as a result, how they viewed themselves as students. 52.9% reported that their teachers give them time to answer questions, 15.7% said their teachers did not give them time to answer questions and 21.4% said they were sometimes given the time. 50% wrote that they were encouraged to participate in group discussions, 20% were not encouraged to participate and 17.1% said they were sometimes encouraged. In keeping with these percentages, 42.9% felt they were treated respectfully at school by the teachers and staff, while 15.7% said they were not and 31.4% said they were sometimes. However, 68.6% felt they were in a positive learning environment. This discrepancy between the question of a positive learning environment and being treated respectfully is most likely due to the respondents who are no longer in school and were reporting on their past school experience versus their current environment. 21.4% felt they were not in a positive learning environment. Over half (48.6%) of the respondents felt they were believed competent by their teachers, and 18.6% believed they were not, while 17.1% felt they were sometimes believed competent by their teachers. The majority of respondents (88.6%) reported they believed they were “capable of learning” with just 2.9% saying they did not believe themselves to be capable of learning and 7.1% believed they were sometimes capable of learning. In keeping with this theme of learning, 74.3% wrote they enjoyed learning, 4.3% said they did not and 17.1% reported they sometimes enjoyed learning. The next two questions required longer answers regarding advice for school administrators, teachers and support persons. Many urged for “patience”, “compassion”, to “believe in the student”, “learn RPM”, and “assume competence”. Others asked for inclusion and not segregation, and the majority of respondents asked that staff be better trained in AAC devices in general. A couple of people pleaded “listen”, “give me a chance”, while several others asked that they not be treated like “babies” and advised that the curriculum reflect their age. Most people stressed the importance of AAC devices and teaching students to use them at an early age.

The next question, also requiring a longer answer, was advice for parents. The most common answers urged patience, encouraged perseverance in working with their child, trying many different devices and methods of communication, compassion, understanding and believing in your child, and in their competence. A great many suggested RPM as the method that should be learned (26%), while others advised writing and typing as important, if not more important, than speech therapy, particularly for those children who have little or no language.

The final question asked for “any other comments, thoughts relevant to communication methods.” This last question was optional and 75.7% of the respondents answered with a wide variety of answers, including, “To be able to communicate even when spoken language misleads is life altering and though it is hard work it is worth the hardship.” Another pointed out the high cost of AAC devices and that these need to be made available and accessible to all families no matter what their income level is. The issue of cost did not come up often, however, cost is certainly a factor when it comes to AAC devices, as well as training and being able to provide a non-speaking person with other methods of communication.

The survey was broken down into the following sections: demographics, education, communication method(s) found most useful to the respondent, communication methods introduced and used by schools, the respondents thoughts about education, and finally, advice for administrators, teachers, and parents. In looking at the demographics the majority of respondents were white, autistic, non speakers/those who cannot ever rely upon spoken language to convey their thinking and knowledge, between the ages of 7 and 29 years old. Gender identification was of interest because it is commonly believed that autism is more prevalent among males. However this survey suggests more studies are needed as only slightly more males responded than females. More than 10% responded with words describing a gender that cannot be labeled “male” or “female”, suggesting autistic people may not be as influenced by societal pressure to identify as one gender. The largest percentage of respondents are in high school, with middle school coming in a distant second. More respondents reported being in a Special Education School or classroom than any other. There were almost as many students in General Education Schools. Those students who are homeschooled came in as a distant third, though it must be noted that many respondents are in a combination of the three. The most common communication method preferred and used by the largest number of respondents was RPM, which was to be expected as the groups most readily reached through social media use RPM or learned to type using RPM. The majority of respondents were first exposed to the communication method of their choice between the ages of 5 – 13 years old. Interestingly, although the communication methods most commonly used by schools were speech and speech therapy, ABA and PECs, none of these methods were cited by the respondents as the communication method of their choice, suggesting a discrepancy between what is actually needed and what is being used by schools. Exactly half of the respondents said they were allowed to use their communication method at school, though more than half reported that the school and its staff were not trained in this method and most of the respondents said they were not allowed to bring in someone trained in their chosen communication method. As a result these students reported they cannot communicate while at school, other than resorting to “gestures”. Half of the respondents reported being given enough time to answer questions, participate in discussions and felt they were believed competent by their teachers. Just under half felt they were treated respectfully by teachers and staff, with slightly more than half saying they did not feel they were treated respectfully. More than half felt they were in a positive learning environment. The vast majority of respondents believe they are capable of learning and enjoy learning. The advice was that administrators, teachers, staff, support persons and parents should be patient, assume competence and receive training in RPM. Better training for AAC devices in general was also a popular piece of advice for teachers and staff. Finally the respondents voiced an overwhelming desire to communicate and the importance of being able to do so, which is not surprising given that our society places such importance on spoken language and incorrectly assumes those who cannot speak are unable to think.

Moving Forward

Given the above results, the next steps should be heeding the experiences and advice from the respondents of this survey. To date much of the methodology comes from researchers or people who speak and therefore are not non speaking or unable to ever rely upon spoken language to ask questions or convey their knowledge and complex thoughts. This must change if we are going to see real advancements made for students who cannot speak in ways the general population understands or accepts. As one respondent implored, “Give me a way to communicate, stop waiting for speech to come.”

What follows are some of the suggestions respondents made when asked for advice directed to administration, staff, teachers, and support people. One respondent wrote, “Thank you for your patience on my bad days when typing is hard. I always try hard but some days I can’t do it. Don’t give up on me.” Another said, “Get them (students) some way that they can communicate! Use the technologies that are available as a first choice not a last choice! Don’t let frustration build up to overflowing then taint everything else.” Another person wrote, “first to understand that it is possible to have unexpressed thoughts and internal life” while another wrote, “to know that others may be the same as me: I am intelligent but happen to have a body that does not obey my thoughts.” One respondent wrote, “Meaningful life experiences come when we are allowed to participate.” A parent wrote, “Examine your curriculums and make sure they are interesting.” Another parent said, “They must not discount students based solely on their inability to get their words out…. Many nonverbal children have great intelligence that is missed because all anyone wants to give them credit for in the early years is talking, which is, quite frankly, very over-rated.” A number of respondents suggested that alternate ways of communication should be explored immediately instead of so many of the early years being devoted to speech and speech therapies. Several people urged administrators and teaching staff to “listen to autistic people, read what nonverbal autistic people are writing.” Motor planning challenges and executive functioning issues were listed as things that need more attention. Improved, and more training of staff by autistic people, so the staff better understands autism, especially in terms of behavior and functioning. “I want more schools teaching understanding of autism as a motor planning problem, not lacking intelligence,” one person reported. A large number of respondents advised administrators to offer training in RPM to their teachers and staff.

In answer to the question asking for advice for parents, one respondent wrote, “Listen to me. Communication is not just words.” Another wrote, “Make sure your children know that they are not the problem, the system is.” One respondent advised, “Stop trying to “cure” or “fix” or force normalcy…” Another said, “Teach your child to advocate for themselves. Show them how. Encourage them.” Another wrote, “Give them a way (to communicate) Don’t wait for speech to come.” A number of respondents urged parents to take their child to a qualified RPM provider and many others simply wrote, “Learn RPM.” One respondent said, “Don’t stop searching for a reliable means for your child to communicate. It is a basic human right. It’s vital…. If your mouth was taped with duct tape, your hands bound with duct tape, and you’re bound to a chair would you understand what I was saying to you any less?” Our motor issues challenge us in similar ways.”

For the final question asking for any other comments or thoughts relevant to education and methods of communication, one respondent wrote, “Please help dispel the practice of using only ABA type models to help autistics. Until there is the realization that the so called experts, unless autistic themselves, have no clue what is best for us, they must allow for that which we need to access communication. This includes support by trained communication providers and training for more people to support future generations.” Another wrote, “Realistically in CA right now the best option is homeschooling. Sadly the schools are so ABA drill based that brilliant voices are locked inside so many kids here.” A few respondents advocated for teaching sign language at an early age. Many again urged that RPM should be learned. One respondent wrote, “Look at your own prejudices and work on being a more compassionate and understanding person. Autism carries many gifts as well as challenges. We need to start concentrating on those gifts and helping all of us grow together.” And finally this, “The face of autism is continually changing. As autistics become more involved in the conversation, our understanding is evolving. This is a good thing. I’m fully included on a university campus and I love it! I’m a straight A student and participate in a national honor society. I’m a full-time sophomore. Gratefully, I am taken very seriously on campus by both the administration and the faculty. I enjoy interacting with my peers with my communication partner’s support. I have to confess, I was nervous it would go differently. I’m thrilled to be achieving higher education!”

While patience, assuming competence, learning RPM and other alternate communication methods were among the most popular suggestions, there were many who asked that communication devices in general be made available to all students. The idea that speech therapy is a given, particularly during early intervention, but learning to use an alternate communication device is not, was brought up by a number of respondents. The intelligent, thoughtful and often creative responses from the autistic people and their parents who answered this survey are examples of why autistic people, particularly those who cannot ever rely on spoken language to express their views on topics such as this, should be actively sought out and listened to. Until autistic people have a voice in this discussion, there will continue to be a large gap in what they prefer to use to help them communicate and what is being given or taught to them. The motto of disability groups world wide is, “Nothing about us, without us.” The world and particularly the Department of Education would be wise to heed those words and act accordingly by including autistic people in their planning moving forward.


In conclusion, the importance of alternate methods of communication being made available to students who cannot ever rely upon spoken language to communicate their complex ideas cannot be overstated. Without a way to communicate these students are left voiceless and with no means to communicate other than through their screams or other ways of moving and acting to communicate their frustration and upset. These actions, often viewed as disruptive are more likely to result in negative responses than the kindness and patience the respondents of this survey said they so desperately need and desire. Without any way to communicate these students are unable to ask questions, participate in discussions or engage in intellectual discourse.

It is clear that there are a number of existing communication methods that work for a great many – RPM and AAC of different kinds, but more, cheaper methods are needed. More studies are necessary to find inexpensive alternate methods of communication for non-speaking students, so that all students, no matter their race, age or socio-economic background can be an active participant in their learning, education and learning environments. In addition it is imperative that students who are able to communicate through typing, writing or some other way are listened to and brought into the conversation regarding what works and what does not. Simply using methods that exist because they are available, even though the respondents of this survey agreed they were unhelpful is not a solution. A number of respondents listed a number of methods they use, including “body gestures” because the communication method of their choice was not used in their school, so they were forced to make do with a method that was not their first choice. It cannot be emphasized enough – this must change.

The two biggest limitations of this survey, and therefore this paper, were the inability to reach a larger and more diverse population of non-speaking students and the issue of cost for training and devices, which makes alternate types of communication difficult, if not impossible for lower income families and their schools to obtain. Until communication, in all its forms, is seen as being as important as spoken language and placed as a priority by society, our schools and school districts, this will likely not change.

Without an ability to communicate, we are left silent, and believed to have nothing to say.

Just because we cannot speak, does not mean we cannot think.


Long, Bev. “Autism Basics.” Autism Forum Basics – Diagnostic Center Central (DCC). N.p., n.d.

Web. 14 Dec. 2016.

“Autism Fact Sheet.” National Autism Association RSS. National Autism Association, n.d. Web.

12 Dec. 2016. “Autism Fact Sheet.” National Autism Association RSS. National Autism

Association, n.d. Web. 12 Dec. 2016.

“Researchers Focus on Non-Verbal Autism at High Risk High Impact Meeting.” Autism Speaks.

Autism Speaks, n.d. Web. 12 Dec. 2016.

Sarris, Marina. “Measuring Intelligence in Autism.” Interactive Autism Network. N.p., 20 Oct.

2015. Web. 17 Jan. 2017

Zurcher-Long, Emma. “Have Your Voice Heard!” Blog Post. Emma’s Hope Book. N.p., 05 Dec.

2016. Web. 16 Dec. 2016

Thanks to all who participated.  Writing this research paper was an assignment  in my English class and was extremely difficult for me. It took many months with tons of edits, revisions, and help from my mom and my English teacher, Ms Greenberg, both of whom I am grateful to, as I could not have done this on my own.

*Note from my mom – Emma turned in this research paper on February 2nd, 2017.  In order to republish it here, I had to reformat the entire thing and even so, I was unable to include the 20 plus pages of graphs that she worked off of from all the respondents.  I meant to post this right away, but as you can see, “right away” becomes relative.

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Photo by Pete Thompson


Learning to Believe

Needing time to learn, understanding concepts and refining techniques are all done on separate timelines.  Best to approach each with curiosity and patience, with a large dose of belief in the other person.

Ticking clocks of expectation become toxic.  Learning to believe is the homework for all educators.  Belief in another’s humanity, respecting different learning styles and compassion for all makes a great teacher and student.

Having a wonderful teacher is life changing.


Some Emma Quotes

Each day is a day of discovery with moments of elation and excitement…  at least this is my take away from the past few weeks.  Here are a few of Emma’s comments along the way that she gave me permission to post.

Discussing black holes  (Dr. C and Emma are kindred souls.)

Dr. C:  What has happened to the atomic structure within a black hole?

Emma:  Opportunity to riot.  Structure is chaotic.

Dr. C:  Basically this is correct.  The gravitational pull is so strong that the atomic structure has collapsed.  Thus nuclei and electrons are fused together with no space between them.

Emma: Just like society during a riot.

Dr. C:  These societal people have collapsed onto each other to further this analogy.

Emma:  Exactly.

After reading  Act 1 Scene 1 of Romeo and Juliet

Ariane:  So what do you think so far?

Emma:  Understand that it is a heady play and play on words that pities human rage and love equally.

Reading and discussing the Texas Revolution 

Emma:  Because of dissent a culture was born.

Regarding the Trail of Tears and how the Cherokee were the last tribe to make the grueling 800 plus mile trek to the “Indian Territories” I asked Emma to tell me something about this picture. 

Trail of Tears

Trail of Tears

Emma:  Exodus.  Forced displacement of people with little choice.  It tells something about man’s wish for power.  Oppression is an ongoing story.

And finally on the topic of being home and not in a classroom setting – Emma typed, “naturally living in world’s infinite candy store of learning is to be in constant awe.”

Being Home aka When School is No Longer an Option

Last spring we made the decision to pull our daughter from her middle school.  We did not come to this decision easily or without a great deal of thought.  Ultimately we decided we had no other choice.  Neither Richard nor I are “teachers.”  We are both far too impatient.  For the longest time I thought homeschooling meant recreating “school,” but at home.  This thought was both so awful and terrifying to contemplate, and was probably the reason it took me (I can’t speak for Richard) so long to come around to the idea, that having a child at home would be a good thing, and not bad.    

In many ways I wish school was still an option, but it isn’t. Richard and I know this. The conventional route is evidently not in the cards for us and frankly it never has been, but it’s taken me awhile to come to terms with what this means. That feeling of exhilaration and freedom, so many who do not have “school” as a part of their children’s lives talk about, is only now something I’m starting to feel and experience.  So it was with great joy that I read Emma’s thoughts on not going to school.  

Emma wrote, “Bathing for the first day of school is better when your classroom is closer by.”  When asked what she thought about not going to school, she wrote, “It’s invigorating.”  Then she paused and finished with, “I am a lucky gal.”   

When asked for advice on how we can help her learn and pursue her interests, she wrote, “Relax and relax some more.”

Which… yeah.  That’s sound, solid, advice for just about anything one is doing.

Back to school


Another Year…

It’s been eleven days since anything was posted on this blog, the longest stretch, in the more than four years of its existence, that it has lay dormant.  It was not intended, but instead just happened.

This has been a year of incredible transformation…  I’ve turned a year older today and yet see how much there is to still learn.  Learning and traveling…  nothing makes me feel more alive, more happy, more eager.  And because of my daughter, I am learning more than I ever believed possible.  But that is for another post(s).  Today…  today is a day I am celebrating my family, friends and beautiful life.

Coyote looking back at us with the same curiosity we were viewing them.

Coyote roaming the ranch, looking back at us with the same curiosity we were viewing them

Heading out on a hike

Heading out on a hike

One of a number of bucks who hang around the barn...

One of a number of bucks who hang around the barn…

Sunset - The Rocky Mountains

Sunset – The Rocky Mountains

A rare photograph of  Richard and Ariane together as Ariane is usually behind the camera and not in front of it… Photograph taken by John Kelly.

A rare photograph of Richard and Ariane together as Ariane is usually behind the camera and not in front of it…
Photograph taken by John Kelly.

Wishing all of you a wonderful day.

More will be revealed…

Insights From a Non-Talker: Emma’s Conversation With A Friend

The following is a conversation Emma, Richard and I had with a friend of ours who works at a school.  (DF = dear friend)  I have paraphrased DF’s part of the conversation because a) I cannot type as quickly as she speaks and b) she was thinking out loud at certain points, so I just wrote the gist of what she was saying. All of Emma’s words are what she typed.  Both DF and Emma gave permission to have their words posted here.  As Emma wrote – “People need to understand.”

DF:  I’ve been thinking about your presentation (click ‘here‘ to watch Emma’s presentation) and the body/mind disconnect that you talked about during your presentation last week.  I was thinking about being respectful and making faces back at you and I know you’re smart, but I was afraid that if you can’t control your body and don’t mean to make faces, is it disrespectful to make faces back?

Emma:  Making faces is fun communication in my chosen language.

DF:  Is it also the same for the words you sometimes use?  So, if you’re saying a word like “peacock”, is it respectful to repeat it back and play with words that way?

Emma:  Playing in all ways is my favored way of interacting with people even when they don’t speak silly.

DF:  Sometimes I feel bad because I want to ask you questions because I want to know you better, but I don’t want to ask because I know how hard work it is for you to answer.

Emma:  Talkers always want words, as though everyone stated exactly what they meant.

Richard & Ariane:  (we both asked similar questions, but in different ways, this is a combined version of what we asked) Emma, I’m curious…  when you say “peacock” sometimes you are singing in an operatic voice, but other times you are saying the word over and over while also saying “peek-a-boo” so I’m wondering are you mimicking the bird or are you playing around with the words, “peek-a-boo”?

Instead of pointing to the “y” or “n” for yes or no, Emma pointed to the letter, “w”.  This led to a quick back and forth between us, talkers, about how Emma rarely just answers yes or no when given the opportunity to, but instead writes much more.  I even then joked to Emma, “Em, that was a yes or no question.  You can just hit “y” for yes or “n” for no!”

Emma:  Word play is joyful and I think obvious joy is had with both associations.  Decision to sing while thinking about birds with peek-a-boo tail  feathers brings happy feelings.

Ariane:  Oh my gosh, Emma!  That’s so amazing.  The tail feathers look like hundreds of eyes and they are only fanned out at particular times!  So this wasn’t a yes or no question after all!

We then discussed peacocks, their beautiful plumage and how we often thought we were asking a yes or no question, only to realize how wrong this assumption is.

DF:  Okay, so here’s a problem that many teachers have at school.  A lot of times kids your age or older have fascinations with things that talkers think are inappropriate.  Things like a teenager who likes Teletubbies or wants to carry around a stuffed animal or wants to talk about Thomas the Tank Engine.  We want to be respectful and treat that kid like a mature teenager, but we don’t feel comfortable talking about Teletubbies or Thomas the Tank Engine.

Emma:  This is their fear of indulging a mind that they suspect is simple, but someone who is known to be brilliant would be thought eccentric.

DF:  Should I defend their right to explore their interest in school?

Emma:  Yes, expressions are not threatening and harm none.

*Quick aside – using interests as the gateway to other academics is how many homeschool/unschool .

Richard:  In the past, while watching you type, you’ve made faces at me and I’ve made faces back and was told not to do that.  But I’ve seen you making faces and you still are able to type, should we feel free to make faces with you while you’re typing?

Emma:  This is a difficult answer because I prefer to make faces, but I know how much you want to talk.

R:  What I meant was, do you enjoy having someone make faces back while you’re typing or would you prefer they did not?

E:  I would love to just make faces and not type.

*Another quick aside – so this is the ongoing struggle of all parents it seems to me.  It’s those grey areas when we ask our children to do something, even when they may not always want to.  For us, we put boundaries around typing sessions, so there is a clear beginning, middle and end.  As with most parents, we hope our decision is the right one.

Ariane:  Talk to me about when you say to guests, “good-bye”.  Often you say it shortly after they’ve arrived, sometimes immediately after they’ve finished dinner.  You can clear the room in seconds because they think you want them to leave.  But do you want them to leave?

Emma:  Saying good-bye to some is because I think they need to go, but other times I am sad and say it because I don’t want them to leave.

*Emma then made a sad face and pretended to cry.

Richard:  That’s a good face to make when you’re sad that they must go!

DF, Richard and I circled back to DF’s question about students who have interests in things that the non-autistic educators deem not age appropriate.

Emma:  It’s hypocritical though, because I was often given very young books, more suited for a toddler.


I asked Emma what image she wanted with this post, she typed, "google - "talking" and then chose this.

I asked Emma what image she wanted with this post, she typed, “google – “talking” and then chose this.

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

On Being Fallible

At the conference Em and I just returned from I was confronted by someone who told me I was being disrespectful of my daughter.  She actually went further and said I had spoken “inappropriately” to her.  Furthermore she said these things to me in front of a room filled with people, all of whom could hear her, because she was leading the presentation.  Yup.  It was one of those moments when you really wish the floor would arbitrarily open up and allow you to slide into its blissful dark, abyss.  It was also the final day of the conference and I was feeling pretty fragile and emotional.  My ability to filter was at an all time low, my ability to think logically was pretty much non-existent, and finally, my ability to hear her and reflect on her words without defensiveness was hovering in the red-high-alert-grab-your-oxygen-mask-we’re-going-down-save-yourself range.  It was one of those moments you wish had never happened, but more to the point you wish you’d never said the thing that was being criticized so publicly.  It was a moment of intense shame.  And my first thought was – defend, defend, defend!

But remember, I was in overwhelm before her words had found their target and I didn’t feel strong or able to fight back, nor did I feel I was in a position to fight back, after all not only was she leading the workshop, she was someone I have a massive amount of respect and admiration for.  This is someone I had looked forward to seeing ever since I was told we would be in her workshop.  This was the person I’d read about and anticipated meeting with eager excitement.  Meanwhile there my daughter was, typing out “I’m happy.”  To which she said, “I’m guessing you’re happy when your mom gets called out on her behavior.” Ouch. Ouch.  Ouch.  Let’s just get a knife while we’re at it and see some real blood.

But here’s the thing…  she had a point.  The details aren’t relevant, what is, though, is that if I am speaking to my Autistic child in a way that I wouldn’t speak to my non autistic child, then that’s clearly a problem.  If I am speaking to my Autistic child in a way that I would speak to my non autistic child, (as was the case in this instance) and someone who has spent their life working with children and advocating for them calls me out on what I’ve just said, I need to, at the very least, consider their words and reflect on my own.  I have never claimed to be an ideal parent.  Years of parenting has taught me that sometimes I get it right, often I get it wrong, but hopefully I will always be willing to look honestly at my actions and behavior without defensiveness, but with a desire to learn and be the best parent I can be one day at a time.

So if someone says something that really hurts, when their words pierce, I’m old enough and smart enough to spend some time thinking about my reaction and at least try to see where the other person is coming from.  Sometimes people say things without the necessary information, sometimes people say things that hurt because they are operating from a set of false assumptions, and sometimes hurtful things are hurtful because there is truth to their words.  I’ve spent the last 36 hours trying to figure out which of these was true or if it was a combination of things, but more importantly, I have reflected on whether the sentence I said to my child was the best way I could have spoken to her and if it wasn’t, what would have been.

Even in my state of overwhelm, I was able to whisper to Em right away, “I’m so sorry, Emmy.”  And I was.  But I was also angry with this other person.  I still felt the need to defend.  I still wanted to “save face” in front of this room filled with people.  But instead I went silent and tried not to cry.  Shame.  Shame is brutal and though all of us have probably felt first hand what it feels like, we also probably, inadvertently have shamed others without realizing it or even meaning to.  I know I have.  The above example is a case in point.  Without meaning to – I had shamed my daughter by questioning out loud what she’d just typed.  I get that.  I have enough humility to know that I make tons of mistakes… every day…  but I also know the beat up job that is my default reaction to making a mistake is not a healthy one.  I’m working toward more measured and thoughtful responses.

One of the things I love about Pascal Cheng, the first person to help me begin supporting Emma with her typing was that when I did something that he saw was unhelpful, he would/will say, “May I give you some feedback?”  He then says things like, “Instead of saying, ‘No!’ ask her if that’s the word she meant to type.”  He has taught me to try and give her just the right amount of resistance (to make sure that she doesn’t go to favorite scripts) combined with the emotional support and encouragement she needs to continue typing with me. Pascal models the same respectful interaction with everyone he comes into contact with.  When I grow up I want to be like Pascal.

But in the meantime, I am looking at my words and seeing how important it is for me to be aware and conscious and respectful of my daughter.  Perhaps the better question I must remember to ask myself is not – would I speak to my son this way, but, would I want someone else to speak to me this way?  The beauty of life is that  we can always improve if we want to.  And I desperately want to.  My goal isn’t to be “right” or never to do anything “wrong” or to make someone else “wrong” when they confront me, my goal is to have the willingness to look honestly at my behavior and the things I say and do, face my mistakes and learn from them.  That’s my goal for this short life I have been given.

Me and Em at the ICI Conference
Me & Em

Watch Emma Fly!

Years ago Richard and I went to hear Temple Grandin speak (this was before the documentary about her had been made).  She had slides and gave a terrific talk about what it was like growing up as an Autistic child in a not autistic friendly world.  After the talk she went into the front entrance of the auditorium where she sat near a table displaying her latest book.  I went over to tell her how much I enjoyed reading her two previous books and to ask her if she had any suggestions for me regarding Emma’s inability to stay seated when on an airplane  prior to take off and again once we landed.  (This was something Em had a terrible time dealing with and would get a look of abject panic, before launching into a high volumed scream that had all the passengers covering their ears.  We were pretty desperate to find some way to help her cope.)

Temple said she was pretty sure there were sensory issues at work and gave some suggestions of things we might do to mitigate those.  I remember thinking that Temple in no way resembled my daughter and then made the assumption that Temple must have been far more able when she was my daughter’s age than my daughter currently was.  Whether this is actually true or not is something I cannot know, but a version of this thought process on my part is one I’ve repeated over the years on more than a few occasions.  So desperate to quell my fears and worries I have sought to find my daughter’s adult replica.  I have made the mistake of comparing an adult, possibly an adult who is now even in their 30’s, 40’s or even 50’s, and then drawn conclusions about what I imagine they were like when they were my daughter’s age.

Comparing Em to any adult has proven to be unhelpful to me, to my daughter and, I imagine to the person I am comparing her to, if they were aware I was doing it.  In addition, comparing a child to an adult is never going to give an accurate view of anything, there are too many variables involved.  And this kind of thinking completely ignores the fact that all human beings progress, evolve and change.  This is an obvious statement when applied to a non autistic child, but somehow I came to believe that my Autistic child was different.  I worried she would not progress.  I worried she would not be able to learn.  I worried because, in part anyway, we were given information about our Autistic child that has been proven to be not true.  We were given information that was in direct contrast to presuming competence.  Just as Emma no longer suffers when traveling in an airplane, she also now reads and writes and has, as of three days ago, mastered the complicated skill of a “catch” at her trapeze school.

Excuse me while I jump up and down while wiping away my tears of joy.  Emma wasn’t able to do a catch upon her first try or second or even third.  Em has been going to trapeze school for more than two years.  She also goes to gymnastics once a week where she has been working hard for almost three years strengthening her core muscles.  In the last month she is now able to do a cartwheel.  Emma began learning to type two and a half years ago.  She practices every day.  She practices reading too.  She practices and works really hard.  None of this has come easily or automatically, there is no “magic” involved, unless magic means being given the opportunity to work toward her strengths, to learn and practice and the belief that she can and will succeed.  Watch that video again, because all her hard work is paying off.  Watch Emma fly!

Bungee jumping barefoot – December 2012


Why Teach Age Appropriate Topics?

Someone asked me why would I teach my child age appropriate topics such as the American Indians, the arrival of Europeans to America, the Roman Empire and the difference between amphibians and reptiles, when tying her shoes, answering (whether verbally or by typing) a why question and riding a two-wheel bike has yet to be accomplished.

The short answer is – they are not mutually exclusive.  It is not that one thing gets taught and the other is left to languish.  I believe all these things are important for any child to learn; why shouldn’t my child have the opportunity to learn these things too?  But just to play devils advocate, let’s say that the questioner still asks, but why?  To them I say, because knowledge is freedom.   Knowledge gives us context, history provides us with choices, knowing how our government works gives us important information about leadership, honesty and conversely dishonesty.  Learning about geography gives us information about the physical world we inhabit.  Reading Wordsworth or Shakespeare or Susan Sontag, studying a painting by Rubens or Renoir or Basquiat, listening to music by Rachmaninov or  Ray Charles or, my daughter’s personal favorite, Gwen Stefani transports us, encourages us to think both analytically and creatively and enhances our lives.

Ralph Saverese, author of  Reasonable People: A Memoir of Autism and Adoption wrote a wonderful piece about a year ago, The Silver Trumpet of Freedom about his non-speaking, Autistic, son DJ who had just been accepted into Oberlin.  It’s a terrific piece and I encourage all of you to take a few minutes to read it.  I’ll wait.

Right here.



Read it.  

What many believe to be true about Autism is proving again and again to be incorrect.  What many believe to be true about those who are Autistic AND non-speaking is proving to be incorrect.  Our ideas about someone who has physical challenges AND is Autistic AND does not speak are proving to be incorrect.  Our incorrect beliefs are limiting how that segment of the population is taught and what information they are given access to.

This must change.

To My Daughter…

You are capable.  I am sorry it has taken me so long to fully understand this.  You are smart and able to learn and know so much more than I ever knew.  You understand that sea turtles lay their eggs beneath the sand and then, once hatched, the baby turtles must make the treacherous trek toward the ocean.  An ocean many will never reach.  You understand this.  You understand that turtles live in and out of water.  We did not categorize them yet as reptiles, but we will get to that, possibly tomorrow.

You know Christopher Columbus is said to have reached America in 1492 and that there were people already living here.  You pointed to an illustration of an American Indian and typed that this person was called a Native American.  You showed me where we live on a globe and then suggested we take a boat to England over the Atlantic Ocean so that you might visit an old therapist you still remember and speak of with great fondness.  You became particularly excited by the thought that we would have to stay in a hotel and inquired whether that hotel would have a swimming pool.  I know.  A hotel is not a good hotel without a pool.

You told me an insect has six legs and that a spider has eight legs and even though it kind of seems like a spider should be called an insect, it is not and in fact eats insects which is why all those insects in the Miss Spider book you love so much are scared of Miss Spider and that makes her cry.  You demonstrated your innate acting talents by pretending to cry about Miss Spider’s predicament.  It turns out Miss Spider is a vegetarian and happily eats the flowers offered to her much to the relief of all the fearful insects.  That made you laugh.  Then you remembered how “Bertie kitty” was admonished for getting on the dining room table and eating the flowers and said so, again in a very convincing and stern voice.  You are so talented.  I believed both your pretend tears and your pretend/scolding voice. Thank you for telling me you were pretending because you were very convincing.

You are so, so capable and for so many years I’ve been blind to just how capable you really are.  But maybe, just maybe now I have the tools I need to hear you.  Those tools I thought I was learning to use for you, it turns out are tools I needed for me.  I need them so that I can hear all the things you’ve tried to tell me for so long.

I promise.  I promise to keep listening.

A Brilliant Mind

I have maintained in previous posts, that I continue to believe in my daughter’s brilliance.  Current IQ tests do not account for children who are non-verbal or with limited or impaired speech.  I have no way of knowing what Emma’s IQ is, but I can tell you there are things Emma does, on a daily basis, indicating her mind is capable of some pretty astonishing leaps.  What follows are a number of examples.

Our refrigerator light is out.  The first thing I did was replace the bulb, only to find that wasn’t the problem.  A little later Emma opened the refrigerator door and pressed a switch on the ceiling of the refrigerator and immediately all the lights came back on.

“Wow Em!  How did you know to do that?” I asked incredulous.

“Lights broken,” Emma said, nodding her head up and down as she removed her caramel yogurt from the frig.

“Yeah, but how did you get them back on?” I went over to her and watched as she reopened the door and pressed on the little white button that activates the lights when the door is opened, something I did not realize until Emma showed me.  The lights flickered for a second and then went out.  Emma reached up and matter-of-factly jiggled the switch and the lights came back on.

“There,” she said, with a certain degree of satisfaction.

After a few days of all of us wiggling the switch, the lights flickered on and off feebly one last time before remaining permanently off and I had to call the company to get the light switch replaced.  Now to many of you, this may seem completely commonplace, but I can tell you, I had spent quite a bit of time trying to figure out what was causing the problem.   I should have saved my time and just asked Emma.

Yesterday while Emma and I worked on her literacy program requiring her to choose the word “leg” from several options, she positioned the cursor over the correct button then clicked on the space bar.  Then she looked over at me with a mischievous grin as if to say – did you see that?

Again, hitting the space bar instead of clicking on the mouse or the return key never would have occurred to me.

Another thing I’ve noticed while working with Emma is that she has an amazing ability to see patterns.  So, for example, if I show her a series of “words” but with only parts of the letters showing such as:  _a_s,  r_ _ _, _e_ _, _ _s_ and ask her to find the one that can be “eats” she will find the correct one immediately, less than a second, faster than I am able to.  I am consistently amazed by this.  It is in keeping with her ability to know instantly when a photograph is missing from her pile.

Emma’s box of photographs – over 200

The other day Emma was singing while shooshing around on her scooter.  Richard was reading in the rocking chair, Merlin happily nestled in his lap.  “You know what she’s doing right?” Richard said looking over his reading glasses at me.

“Yeah,” I said without looking up.

“She’s created her own carousel.  Do you hear her?  She’s singing all the songs they play on the carousel.  And watch.  She’s going around and around on her scooter in the same direction as the carousel.”

I stopped reading and watched and listened.  Emma was currently singing “Georgy Girl” one of the many songs they play at the Central Park Carousel.

“I wonder if she’s singing the songs in the correct sequence,” he wondered out loud.  “We’ll have to make a note of that next time we go.”

Emma riding on the Central Park Carousel

These are only a few examples of Emma’s brilliant mind.  There are countless others.

We, as a society have a tendency to view ourselves and others with a critical eye.  We are taught early on to look at our deficits and then do all we can to take corrective measures to make up for those deficits.  I don’t believe this kind of thinking is helpful with children diagnosed with autism.  The deficits pile up unbidden until that’s all we can see.  Our children are routinely viewed as “less than” as we struggle to help them.  I feel strongly a more balanced approach is necessary.  Our children are often brilliant.  If I approach Emma with this in mind, I am able to more fully help her, by focussing on her talents, on the things that are easy for her and using those assets to help her with the things that are more difficult.   In addition I find I can learn a great deal from her.

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

Dreams For Emma – Autism

A follower of this blog and mother of two children on the spectrum asked me if Emma used an ipad.  I wrote about Emma’s ipad last fall for both this blog as well as the Huffington Post, so in responding to her email, I reread both those posts.  The one for Emma’s Hope Book is entitled Emma and Lists.  What struck me was how far Emma has come since then.  I looked at the date – September 24th, 2010 – and while yesterday I was feeling a bit discouraged with Emma’s ongoing struggles with handwriting, I cannot help but feel incredibly optimistic with her progress after reading those posts.  It’s funny how rereading something I’d written less than a year ago can have such an impact, but it has.

Emma has certainly come a long, long way.  In the post “Emma and Lists” I write about how when I am feeling a little sad or discouraged I make lists.  I go on to recount my current lists, (hopes) for Emma.  “Help Emma with Reading,”  “Help Emma with writing,” are two such items.  I remember when I wrote that post, thinking that these were dreams, perhaps dreams I might not ever see accomplished.  And yet, here I am in July of 2011 and not only are both these dreams coming true, but so are others that I hadn’t even thought to put on my list.  Things like:  beginning math concepts, writing in full sentences, learning to type, following three and four step commands.  These are all things Emma is in the process of learning.

I will try to remember to take a photograph of Emma’s handwriting this afternoon.  She is coming along.  She is learning, she is progressing.  It’s easy to forget, though.  I forgot that last September I could only hope Emma might one day learn to read and write.  That she is now doing so is remarkable and wonderful.  Last fall we were still riding on the wave of our success with having finally gotten her out of diapers at night.  We were still struggling with getting her to sleep through the night.  I’d forgotten all of that.  It seems so much longer than ten months ago.  It feels as though years have slipped by.

I haven’t dared dream for awhile now.  But rereading those posts reminds me of how important it is to have dreams, for ourselves, for our children.

For more on Emma’s journey through a childhood of autism, and to see how far she’s come in one year go to:  www.EmmasHopeBook.com

Emma’s Handwriting

As those of you who follow this blog know, Joe (click on “Joe” to read an entire post devoted to him regarding his tireless efforts and hard work with our daughter, Emma) and I have been working diligently with Emma on her reading and writing skills and comprehension.  So when she requested Sunday morning to “go to the study room”, I wasn’t particularly surprised.  Just as she inquired however, Nic and his friend Max, who had spent the night, wandered into the kitchen asking for french toast.

“Hang on, Em.  Let me make the boys breakfast and then we’ll do study room,” I said.

“Study room now?”  Emma replied.

“Would you like to write something?” I asked pulling a pad of writing paper out.

“Yes.” Emma said, much to my surprise as handwriting is by far the most challenging aspect of the literacy program we’ve implemented for Emma.

“Okay.  Here.  Go ahead while I make breakfast.”  As I began the preparations for french toast I could see Emma at the dining room table writing.  I quelled the urge to go over and look.

After a few minutes Emma said, “Good job drawing hand!”

I went over to see and saw that above the drawing of her left hand she had written, “This a kid”.

What was remarkable about this was that she came up with this sentence on her own, did not copy it from anywhere, initiated the whole thing, used an upper case “T” to begin the sentence and other than the absence of the “is” and a period at the end, wrote a complete, grammatically correct sentence.  This is not a child who is learning their alphabet, this is a child who is reading and writing.  It was breathtakingly exciting.

“Good drawing hand!” Emma said when she saw me staring down at her work.

“Em!  You wrote – This a kid – that’s fantastic!” I answered.  “Look, you just forgot the is,” I said pointing to the space between this and a.  It’s fantastic!  And this has is in it, so it’s easy to forget.”

“Yeah!” Emma said, smiling broadly.

“I love how you wrote that, Em.  It’s so great!” I said staring at her handwriting and feeling tremendous pride.

“You writing,” Emma said.

“You have to say – I’m writing,” I told her.

“I’m writing,” she said.

“Hey, let’s write – This is a hand,” I said while writing the words to the right of her hand drawing.  “Now you write – hand,” I instructed.

Emma carefully took the marker and wrote – hand – underneath mine.

“That’s great.  And look, let’s write – Emma’s hand – here,” I said.

“Yeah.  That’s Emma’s hand!” she said, pointing.

“Wow, Em.  This is terrific,” I told her.

“Study room now?” Emma asked.

“Yes!  Let’s do your study room now,” I said.  “But first let’s write – This is a kid – again.”

Very methodically Emma took a separate piece of paper and wrote – This is a kid.  Then she reached over and made the toy kid sit on the edge of the page.

“Em, I’m so proud of you,” I told her.

“Emma’s writing!” Emma said, happily.

“I’m writing.  You say – I’m writing,” I said.

“I’m writing!”  Emma repeated.

Yes, she is.

For more on Emma’s journey through a childhood of autism go to:  EmmasHopeBook.com

I Believe…

Every year we have a meeting with the Board of Education aka BOE.  Yesterday morning was our scheduled meeting time, but because Richard has been ill, I went alone.  I do not look forward to these yearly meetings.  And as yesterday morning got off to a bumpy start I was doing my best to bolster myself for what I knew was going to be an emotionally  difficult time.  They always are.  It is at these yearly meetings when we go over Emma’s IEP (Individualized Education Program).  Each year the BOE sends someone from their department into Emma’s classroom to observe her for a half an hour.  From that observation, a report is written, almost always a report we read with dread.  It’s not that they are unreasonable or unfair, though sometimes Emma is unrecognizable, it’s that they are stripped down to the basics.

A sample from one of these reports:  “Emma came down from the cabinet and lay down on a rug.  At 9:07, she remained lying on the rug.  At 9:08, she went out of the classroom and came back barefooted with a plastic box.  A teacher assistant showed her two bottles of paint.  She said, “no” loudly…”  The report goes on to depict a low functioning autistic child (Emma) who is somewhat responsive to the teacher’s assistant, at times non-compliant and with almost no verbal language.

This year Emma was also assessed by a psychologist sent from the BOE.  This report was even more troubling: “Emma is minimally verbal, spoke in single word utterances, or short, attenuated sentences for the most part, was able to repeat simple phrases heard, and was echolalic.”  The report goes on:  “Emma was able to hold a pencil somewhat awkwardly and make a scribble, or simple circular motion.  She was unable to copy simple vertical and horizontal lines, or any simple recognizable geometrical designs.”

As her mother it is difficult to read these reports.  I look at my daughter, my beautiful, funny, athletic Emma and I see her potential.  I choose to believe she is capable of so much.  I choose to believe she understands so much more than she appears to.  I choose to believe she will one day read and write.  I choose to believe one day she will communicate with us.  She will tell us what it’s like for her.   I choose to believe these things because to do otherwise is not a life I want to live.  But when I am confronted with reports such as the ones I’ve quoted from, it makes me question, even if for only a moment these choices, these so called beliefs of mine.  What if I’m wrong?  A question I always follow with – what does it matter if I’m wrong?  Because if I’m wrong, I won’t find out until I’m very old or will never know because I’ll be dead. I will always choose to believe I’m right about Emma.  I have to.  All the work we do with her every single day is because I believe in her abilities.  I believe she can do more.  I believe she is capable of so much.  When I tell her we have to do yet another reading exercise or writing exercise I am doing so because I believe she can.  When I read to her about Harriet Tubman or Helen Keller or Balto or the discovery of King Tut’s tomb,  I believe she is taking it all in.  When I ask her if I should keep reading and her answer is always – yes – I take that as confirmation of my beliefs.  I know I am making a choice.  I know my decision to believe these things are based on very little, but never-the-less I believe.

I believe in Emma.

For more on Emma’s journey through a childhood of autism and my journey in parenting an autistic child, go to:  EmmasHopeBook.com

Emma waiting for her school bus this morning