Tag Archives: learning

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.

chalkboard-copy

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

photo

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.

Seriously.

Go.

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