Tag Archives: Soma Mukhopadhyay

“Why People Walk on Two Legs” – A Folk Tale By Emma

What follows is one in a series of folk tales Emma is in the process of writing since we arrived in Texas visiting Soma Mukhopadhyay.  I’ve written about Soma quite a bit; for more posts about Soma  click ‘here‘, ‘here‘,  and ‘here‘.  Anyone who is curious about Soma’s Rapid Prompting Method (RPM) please visit her website, which is full of terrific information.

A quick note about how I transcribe Emma’s words.  Emma points with a pencil to letters on a laminated letter board that Soma holds in front of her, though she also has Emma hold the laminated board herself from time to time.  No one touches Emma as she does this.  Every few words that Emma spells, Soma takes the pencil from her and writes what she has written and repeats the words out loud.  Emma then proceeds.  As there is no way to punctuate the words as she spells them, I take my notes, transcribe them and ask her to tell me where to put commas and periods.  This story, Emma wrote yesterday and afterward told me, “You could put it on the blog!”

                  Why People Walk on Two Legs ~
A Folk Tale By Emma

Long ago people walked like animals because it was funny.  They had to work in the fields wearing knee-shoes and regular shoes.  They could not run fast that way.

In ancient Turkey there was a man who was sort of a doctor.  He had to be very careful while treating his patients.  He saw most of his patients had bone injury, so he asked them to stand.  It was against the law.  Kings punished anyone who walked that way.

But one day the king hurt his back.  The doctor treated him.  Finally the king made it legal.  Today it is natural to walk the way we walk.

The end

Emma chose this image from a google search for images of “evolution of man walking”

evolution

A Tale: “Horses Will Never Fly”

This tale was written by Emma and she has generously agreed to allow me to share it here with all of you.  She will finish it at a later date since she was too tired to do so now.

“Horses Will Never Fly ~ By Emma

Long ago horses were mean animals.  If anyone tried to go near, they charged at them.  They had big wings and flew higher than eagles.

One day they flew around and caused so much wind that the dust began to fly.  Dust and sand covered big areas of earth, making deserts.  People and trees were buried below the dust.

Finally when they rested they saw their wings had begun to shed…”

Originally Emma ended this with “They stopped flying.  Horses will never fly.  The end.”  But once we returned to our hotel and discussed it more, Em said it wasn’t quite finished and promised to finish it later when she wasn’t so tired.  In addition, I added the punctuation with Emma’s approval.  As there is no way to punctuate from a stencil board it must be done afterwards.

These sessions are exhausting and she works so hard.   Her story reminded me of Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories that I loved as a child.  I cannot wait to read what Emma writes next!

Emma chose this image to accompany her tale from a search for “winged horses.”  It was attributed to redorbit.com

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Emma’s Letter

Yesterday Soma (for more about Soma, RPM and the Halo Center please click on this link) spoke with Emma about ethanol, fuel and bio fuel, what happens to plants and animals when their bodies decompose, green house gasses, carbon dioxide, fossil fuels, how all of this can affect the economy, and finally Soma asked, “Suppose you are giving a speech at the UN.  What kind of speech would you give?”

Emma gave me permission to quote the speech she then wrote.

“Dear World,

Heat is important, but the world also needs snow.  We must think about the future and use fossil fuel wisely.

Personally, I like car rides, but I am going to walk more.  Walking is good for the heart.”

After we returned to our hotel, I told Em about her Grandpa who had to use a wheelchair when he could no longer walk.  We talked about other ways of getting around and how public transportation, particularly some of New York City’s older subway stations are inaccessible to those who use wheelchairs.  We discussed “green cities” and what that means.  We went to a website to look at photos of “15 Green Cities” and it turns out Austin, Texas is listed as the 15th.

I am too tired and do not have enough time to write more about our first day, and, as always, I need time to process all that has happened and is continuing to happen.

Every day I am being shown that what I believe it means to “presume competence” does not go nearly far enough.  Every. Single. Day.

S&E

 

“Let Me Tell You…”

Emma gave me permission to tell all of you what she would invent were she an inventor.  *A little background – the quotes from Emma are what she spelled out by pointing to a letter, one letter at a time on a stenciled alphabet board.  No one touches Emma as she does this.  In fact there is no physical contact of any kind during the session, also known as an RPM (Rapid Prompting Method) session.

Emma has been doing RPM daily with me since the end of September.  Within the past two weeks she has begun to answer open-ended questions with me.  However the session I am going to write about was with someone who was trained by Soma Mukhopadhyay (the creator of RPM) and whom she is now seeing a couple of times a week.  This person, who I have not asked permission to print her name and so will refer to as B, has been doing RPM for a while now and as a result is able to move far more quickly into open-ended questions than I am.

In their previous session they had discussed train engines.  At the end of their session B asked Emma to think about what she might invent were she an inventor.  When Emma returned for her next session they began with the question, “What would you think was a really great thing to invent?”

Emma then replied, “Let me tell you that it is not a train engine.”

I have to interject here…   I love how ballsy my daughter is.  I love that she didn’t just answer with one word.  I love how audacious, cocky even her answer was… “Let me tell you…”  Emma spells words out, and I sit watching, literally on the edge of my chair, waiting, wondering what wonderful words will she write?  “Let me tell you…”  YES!  I cannot wait to hear what you have to say!!!!!

Emma continued, “It is more from the future…”

B urged her to tell us more.

“It is a spaceship.”

For all who know my husband this answer has brought a smile to your face.  For those of you who do not, let’s just say he has a particular fascination with spaceships, UFO sightings, etc.  He has logged in many an hour watching YouTube clips of various sightings.   As I sat watching my daughter spelling out these words I kept thinking how much Richard was going to LOVE hearing about this session.  But there’s more…

B encouraged Emma to continue, asking her to tell us more about the spaceship she would invent.

Emma spelled out, “Have you ever seen spaceships in New York?”

Sorry, I have to interject again.  This question… this question is wonderful and defies all that is commonly thought about so many of our kids who cannot verbalize questions like this.  For all those parents who have never had their child ask a question, for all who have bought into this idea of Autistic self involvement, of a lack of interest in others, this thought that our children who are non-speaking or unreliable speakers are “caught” or “lost” in some other world… to all of you, I suggest we rethink these ideas.  My daughter is not the only one writing things like this, she is one of many, many children, teenagers and adults who cannot voice their thoughts, but are writing them.  I have watched her, time and time again, asking questions; this kind of engaged conversing goes against everything we are taught and being told about non-speaking/unreliably speaking autistic people.  

B answered Emma’s question saying that she had not seen a spaceship in New York City.  She said she’d seen a great many different types of transportation in New York City, but never a spaceship, to which Emma then wrote, “You never have to wait to go anywhere.”

B then asked her how you could get a spaceship and Emma wrote, “You buy it on your own or you get a monthly pass.”  (In New York City most of us take advantage of the terrific subway system.  To use the subway you need a “Metrocard” which you can purchase for a single ride, multiple rides or for those who commute daily a monthly card of unlimited rides.)

B observed that as parking in New York City is already limited she wondered where a spaceship would go.  Emma wrote, “No parking needed.  Once they have landed they become invisible.”

B then asked her,  “How do you call for one?”

Emma wrote, “You have a button to press and it arrives right away.”

Let me tell you…

images

My Resistance to Practice

I’ve been struggling, feeling very emotional in a “bad” sort of way.  You know how when you’re weepy all the time for seemingly no good reason?  Those times when you keep crying every time you hear sad music, and all music strikes you as sad, even really upbeat music, or when someone looks at you with a stern face, or uses a harsh tone, or if you read something sad, and everything you read seems really sad, and you keep having to wipe tears from your face and hope you remembered to bring tissues with you, but you never do?  Yeah, sort of like that.

*Sigh*  It’s been a tough few weeks.  I have felt off-balance because I have been expecting myself to be able to do what I’ve seen a number of people do with my daughter, but that I have not been able to do.  I returned from our trip to Texas and thought, after only a couple of sessions with my daughter, I’d be able to start asking her open-ended questions, just as I’d seen Soma Mukhopadhyay do.  (Despite the fact that Soma advised me NOT to ask any open-ended questions in the beginning.)  *Define beginning, I kept thinking.  I HAVE begun.  Surely now after the second or third day home I am beyond “beginning”!  This thinking is akin to seeing a master jeweler create a beautiful ring and expecting that I should be able to create that same ring without having spent years practicing the craft as a bench jeweler, or hearing a Rachmaninoff piano concerto played at Carnegie Hall and then going home and thinking after a couple of piano lessons that I would be able to replicate that piano concerto.  The point is, Soma is a master at RPM (rapid prompting method).  She’s been doing RPM for close to two decades, first with her son Tito and later with hundreds of Autistic people.

But I so wanted to have the kind of conversations with my daughter that I saw her having with Soma.  It was like catching a little glimpse of paradise, but not being able to find the bridge to actually get there.  I kept trying to leap.  I kept trying to find a short cut.  And as I did this, each day, my distress grew.  I felt frustrated and then angry and then beaten down.  All because I was expecting myself to be able to do something without any practice.  So when my suffering reached an all time high, when the occasional weeping, became more than occasional and my son, upon seeing me asked, “why are you always crying?” I realized I had to get help.  I did what years of recovery from addiction has taught me – I reached out to another human being.  I contacted someone I only know through the internet, but who has been working with her son for a number of years now.

She gave me wonderful tips.  She sent me videos to watch.  She listened to my distress.  She told me it took months of practice and as I read everything she sent me, I kept thinking both how grateful I was to her for being so kind and generous in sharing her experience with me, but also was reminded that I need to practice and I need to start at the beginning.  Everything takes practice.  My expectations of myself were causing me tremendous pain.  They were unrealistic.  It isn’t that I can’t do this method with my child, it’s that I can, but I need to practice.  And as I realized this, as I thought more about this, I saw the parallels to presuming competence in my child.  I have written about what “presume competence” means, but in all the posts I’ve written on the topic there is one piece of this that I have neglected to mention and that is, presuming that we can and will be able to learn with appropriate accommodations and enough practice.  I forgot to include myself in presuming competence.  I need that presumption too.  I need to remember that I can and do learn if I’m given instruction and give myself the opportunity and time to practice.

I had the proper instruction, but I haven’t been practicing long enough to get the results I wanted.  So last night I wrote up a lesson plan, just as Soma had instructed during a previous four-day intensive workshop I took last spring.  I made sure I followed her format of how to create a lesson plan.  I made sure I began with choices and spelling key words.  I even tried to embody her lovely, sing-song, calm, kind voice.  I laid aside any expectations of what would or should happen.  And you know what?  It was a great session.  I made a couple of mistakes, I had to refer to my notes often.  I had to make some adjustments.  I forgot a couple of key things, but I jotted down some comments to myself so I can remember to revise accordingly for our next session this afternoon and more importantly, we were both more relaxed than we have been since we returned home.

Practice.  I hate the idea of having to practice.  I want to go from never having done something, to immediate fluency.  But once I begin practicing and let go of that desire and those expectations for immediate fluency, practicing can be incredibly enjoyable.

To Sue:  This post is for you.  Thank you.

Em practices jumping on her pogo stick.  New all time record?   127.

Joy copy

Patience

The strangest experience I’ve encountered with my daughter is seeing her work with someone like Soma Mukhopadhyay or Rosemary Crossley or Pascal Cheng or Harvey Lavoy.  I don’t know that one can ever really be prepared for the flurry of emotions that threaten to overwhelm as you sit and watch your non fluent speaking child write profoundly insightful things, show their vast intelligence and knowledge despite having had almost no formal education and what little they’ve had it was most definitely not anywhere near what they are capable of or even at age level.

To watch them so easily converse through writing, or what looks so easy as I sit witnessing…  it is like nothing else I’ve ever experienced.  The only thing I can liken it to was when I was eight years old and my older brother told me that the universe was infinite.  I remember saying that couldn’t be true, that it must end somewhere, and he looked at me and smiled.  Then he asked, “if it ends, then what’s on the other side of the “end”?  And I sat there mesmerized by this idea of infinity, trying over and over to imagine what that looked like, and my mind coming up against the impossibility of this concept, so conditioned, already at the age of eight to think of things as being limited.

So inevitably, after we return home from seeing these various people, or after they pack up their things and leave, I am filled with optimism.  After all what we’ve just witnessed  fills us with hope and the future, our child’s future is limitless.  Every time, without fail,  I am filled with astonishment that my daughter isn’t enthusiastically and cheerfully typing or writing her opinions and thoughts about things with me.  I’ve discussed this with my husband, I’ve spoken to close friends, I’ve talked to other parents and always it is variations on this story.  The incredulous parent with the child who does not seem overjoyed with the idea of continuing to do this all the time, or even any of the time.

At first I spoke of it as resistance, but that puts the onus on my child and I’ve learned to be very careful with words like that, they are far too close to the whole, “you just have to try harder” idea, which I know both for myself and for her is detrimental.  This isn’t about trying harder, this is about how difficult communication is for someone like my daughter.  Just because she can communicate through typing or pointing to words on a stencil board, does not mean it is easy or simple for her.  Just because I am filled with enthusiasm does not mean it isn’t hard work for her.  And so I have to acknowledge how hard this is.

I’ve thought of it as akin to the difficulty I have in learning a foreign language, but I’m not sure that’s really a great analogy.  To me, the idea that she can communicate in any form is just fantastic news and to my thinking why wouldn’t my child want to grab that and run with it?  And then I thought about meditation or exercise or eating foods I know are good for me and how I know my day will go better if I do these things and yet days will go by and I don’t.  Perhaps it is more like that.  Perhaps the importance I place is not the same or maybe importance isn’t even part of the equation for her.

What I’ve noticed is that I feel tremendous fear trying to replicate what I’ve witnessed.  I worry that I will do it wrong, that I will inadvertently hurt her or make a mistake that will cause her upset.  I worry that I will make what is already difficult even more so.  I am also aware of how I do not want to be disappointed.  I do not want to feel those feelings of hope and expectation dashed and the inevitable feelings that then follow, which are often doubt.  Was it all a dream?  Did it really happen?  Could it be it was just that one time?  A kind of burst of brilliance, never to be seen again?

I have had dozens of these moments over the last year.  Dozens of times when I have doubted what I just witnessed.  Dozens of times when I’ve thought – I won’t be able to do this.  I’m too invested, I’m putting too much pressure, I can’t do it, I won’t be able to, I’m not cut out for this kind of work, I don’t have the patience.  But what I see over and over is that I do and I can.  I have to go slowly, I cannot expect to get the results that people who’ve been working with non-speaking Autistic people for decades get.  I have to begin with simple options.  In supported typing they have a “ladder” of communication and new supporters must begin at the bottom rung, not because the person they are supporting isn’t capable, but be cause they are not, not yet.  With Soma’s method it is similar.  One begins with choices, and from there fill-ins and slowly, slowly as one becomes more confident, as trust is built, I will move to increasingly open-ended questions.

All of this requires patience.  Patience with myself, patience with the process, patience with my child.  Patience.  Showing up and being in this moment without expectation.  Patience with my limitations.  Patience with my inexperience.  Patience with my limited thinking that is slowly, slowly expanding to embrace the unknown.

Today Emma is sick and so is home from school.  I asked her what she wanted to discuss – poetry, a story, or Buddhism.  She wrote, “buddhism.”  The irony of her choice is not lost on me…

Buddha copy

Changing Our Thinking

I asked Emma for her permission to talk about language retrieval issues, and specifically to describe some of what occurred during her first session with Soma last week.  She said it was okay for me to do so.  I’m incredibly grateful to my daughter for being so generous with what is personal information.  She has given me her permission, but to leave it at that, would be wrong.  To not acknowledge what this means would be negligent at best.  She is unbelievably generous to allow me to share these things.  I do not know how many of us would be willing for another to share such personal things about ourselves, and the trust she has bestowed upon me, the trust that I will not betray her…  it is something I not only take very seriously, but need to acknowledge.  To say I am grateful does not come close to describing the feelings of appreciation and awe my daughter inspires.  If all human beings could take a page from Emma, both in her cheerful generosity in giving of herself so that others might benefit and her compassion and willingness to see the best in people, even when so many have said and done cruel things to her, this world would be a far better place for all of us.

I wrote about Emma’s first session with Soma ‘here‘.  What I didn’t write about was how after Emma pointed to a letter she was encouraged to say the name of the letter, just as her Proloquo2Go program does on her iPad.  She was able to do so without hesitation.  But when Soma put the stencil board down and asked Emma to say the next letter of the word she was writing, without pointing to it first, Emma would, more often than not, say a random letter.  Soma then picked up the stencil board and again without hesitation, Emma pointed to the correct letter and was able to identify it correctly out loud.  After Emma wrote a sentence she was invited to read the sentence aloud, but could not do so.  This is a sentence she’d just written, one letter at a time.  A sentence she’d created, yet was not able to read.  It is not then surprising that Emma is unable to read a random story out loud, even though she is perfectly capable of reading it silently to herself and fully comprehending it.  See related post about reading aloud, ‘here‘.

To see this broken down, to witness this at the level of single letter retrieval and not a whole word even, made it all even clearer to me.   Which isn’t to say that Emma will never be able to do this.  Perhaps at another point, perhaps once she is proficient in writing her thoughts and identifying a letter after pointing to it, one letter at a time, she will then be able to work slowly, patiently and without the anxiety of feeling expectations are being placed on her, perhaps then she will be able to come up with the next letter before she points to it and from there the next word and on it goes until verbal language can catch up to her written.  But for now, it is imperative that every single person who comes into contact with my daughter understand how detrimental it is for her to have these expectations placed on her and then to have the inevitable conclusions drawn about her comprehension and ability.

My daughter is nothing short of brilliant.  I am not saying this as a biased mother who is basing her thoughts on nothing more than some sort of convoluted tip of the hat to genetics, or a round about way of bolstering my own ego and intellect.  I am saying this because I have seen the evidence.  Since her diagnosis, Emma has been treated as though she were intellectually impaired when, in fact, she is intellectually gifted.  This is, I’m sorry to say, something I am hearing from others.  We have a growing population of children and people who are treated as though they are incapable, when in countless cases the opposite is true.  The onus is on us to change our current teaching methods and the therapies we are employing and to open our minds to the idea that we have gone about this all wrong.  This is what must change.

Soma & Em copy

“Be Nice To Each Other”

Be nice to each other” – this was the final sentence Emma wrote to Soma on Friday before we flew back home.  She wrote it in answer to Soma’s question, “Any message to the world?  To mankind?”

Be nice to each other.

We returned home late Friday night.  I was riding on a cloud of excitement, newly found realizations, solid, unequivocal confirmation and proof that not only is Emma completely aware of her surroundings, but she has profoundly wise insights into the world, other people and herself.  She is one brilliant girl.  She has managed to learn despite having almost no formal education, she knows her multiplication tables as though she’d been studying them for years.  She knows how to solve mathematical word problems, she understands things I have only come to understand very recently and her compassion for others is astonishing.  She has been spoken harshly about.  She has heard what others have said about her in front of her as though she could not hear or understand.  She knows what others think of her, and yet, she understands these things are said in ignorance.

So excited was I, that I slept fitfully, and Saturday morning awoke to blinding, crushing, devastating sadness.  I felt the weight, the enormity of my daughter’s life and my role in all that has happened to her these past nine years since she was diagnosed.  My mind latched on to each and every misstep, the mistakes piled up so quickly, one on top of the other I felt I couldn’t breathe.  I spent Saturday in a state of crisis.  I completely broke down.  And the thought that continued to blast in my mind was, “How will I ever find my way out?  How can I forgive myself for what I’ve done?  How does one forgive another who has made the decisions I’ve made?  In essence, how can you forgive what is unforgivable? And yet, she has.  And therefore, so must I.

Be nice to each other.

And here is the thing about all of this.  Berating myself, hating myself, NOT forgiving myself allows me to continue the cycle.  It wears me down, threatens to break me when I need to be strong.  But I also know that when I am overwhelmed with feelings, telling myself that I must not feel the things I am feeling, does not make them go away.  Tamping the feelings down, pretending they do not exist, none of that actually helps me move through them.  Criticizing myself for hating myself does not make me hate any less.  And so I accepted that this was where I was.  And for one day I sat with all those awful, painful feelings and felt them.  Neither pushing them away or adding to them by criticizing myself for having them.  I sat with them one excruciating hour after the next and allowed them to be.  And all the while I repeated Emma’s words, Be nice to each other. And I allowed that to include myself.  By Sunday morning I felt my strength returning.  I felt that old determination returning.  I could feel energy flowing and I knew.  I knew.  As long as Emma gives me permission to, I will tell all who will listen, at least some of what she is writing.

When I asked Emma yesterday if I could write today’s post using her words as the title she nodded her head, yes, and smiled.  Last night before going to sleep she said, “Mommy?  No school tomorrow?  I don’t like new school.”  And so I promised her, I promised I would do everything in my power to help her school understand, but I know I have one hell of a battle before me.  And I need every ounce of strength I’ve got in me.  But maybe, just maybe some of the video clips I have of Emma writing these things will have the power to change even a few minds so that they will be swayed and will come to understand what I have.  Not only is my daughter capable, she has a great deal to teach us, but all of that will be lost if we are not willing to open our minds and listen.  This is the non autistic limitation of our neurology.  This is our neurological deficit and we will have to work mightily to change that.

Emma at Halo – September 26th, 2013

Em iPad copy

My Star: Emma

Rhyming words, poetry, fables, history, science, multiplication, math word problems…  these are the things Soma has covered with Emma over the last three days.  Emma went from pointing to one letter at a time, to writing out several words and even whole sentences describing profound thoughts, insights, doubts and concerns, and I sat there witnessing this outpouring of words, this torrent of letters that, when added up, evoked emotion and identification and concern and understanding.  The power of language.  The power of communication.  There is tremendous power in both.

This has been a profound few days; transformative, exhilarating and exhausting.  I have watched my daughter work and she has worked very, very hard.  I have watched her and I have marveled at her and been dismayed by her and astonished with her.  I have laughed and wept and listened and listened and listened some more.  She has said things that have provoked more questions than answers, but she is here, very much rooted in this world and not, as many suggest or seem to think, somewhere else, off in her own “little world”.

I cannot write about anything specific this morning, I’m too tired and Emma has said she is too.  We have two more sessions today with Soma and then we head home.  We are lucky.  We are incredibly fortunate that we’ve had the means to do this, to come here, to stay for the week so that Emma could work with Soma.  All the young children Soma has worked with over the years, so many of them are now writing books, and are at an age where they are publishing their hard-won  words; there are too many to ignore.  They are communicating on letter boards and iPads and keyboards, an unbelievable output of thoughts, ideas and opinions.  “I want to be able to talk,” Emma wrote yesterday.  And maybe, just maybe one day she will be able to talk the way she writes, but until then we will keep providing her with every available resource we can find so that she has a better chance of achieving that goal.

Em standing beneath the “Star of Texas”

Em & Star of Texas copy

“I Want to Know What God Thinks About Autism”

*Emma approved this post before I published it.

Yesterday was our second day working with Soma.  And just when I thought I could not be more blown away by anything Emma wrote, she wrote the title to this post.  It was in response to a conversation about Mesopotamia, ancient civilizations, buildings and building materials, which led to Soma discussing the types of structures built, one being temples.  Soma asked Emma why people would go into a temple, to which Emma wrote, “pray”.  Soma then asked her if she went into a temple what would she pray about.  Emma then wrote, “I want to know what god thinks about autism.”  

I have to interrupt this to say, I am not a believer.  I had a moment, a very brief moment in my teens and again in my thirties when I so wanted to believe, I needed to believe and yet still could not really believe in any way that made sense to me.  God is not something I obtain any solace or strength from believing in, and well… truthfully, I’ve stopped trying.  I don’t need to believe.  Having said that, my husband and I talk about god, religion, spirituality, the practice of acceptance and staying present, meditation, doing the right thing, and what a power greater than ourselves means on any given day.  So there is a fair amount of “god-like” talk going on.  In addition, my mother is a theologian and has taught bible study classes for many decades.  She used to attend a Torah study and I believe does again now.  She is one of the most knowledgable and interesting people I know of to talk to about religion and god.

The point is, Emma has certainly been present to a great many conversations about god, the bible and religion.  But never has she said the word “god” let alone, used the word in a sentence.  And it must be said, we never thought to ask her…   When both children were still very young I bought a number of children’s books on a variety of religions, and made some general statement about the importance of learning and deciding for yourself what you believe.  We still have those books; I’ve never seen Emma look at them, but that doesn’t mean she hasn’t.  And anyway, as I said, it’s not as though she hasn’t heard a great deal of talk about God.

Later I asked Emma if she believed in God and she wrote simply, “yes”.

If there is a god, I’d like to know what god thinks about autism, too.  I’m guessing here, but I should think god is embracing and celebrating all neurologies.  After all, most people I know who believe in the existence of god believe that god created us the same and equal and beautiful beings, given the gift of choice.  We can choose to act with love, compassion and kindness or we can choose to behave in hurtful ways that cause tremendous pain and suffering.  Either way, according to those I trust and respect on the topic, God is always there for us, all of us, all the time, and without exception.

Em Texas

Soma Mukhopadhyay ~ Day 3

It is hard to believe how much information Soma is able to pack into the first three days of a four-day training.  She has managed to cover the different learning channels and how to teach toward each one.  We learned about the various stages of development, left brain/right brain, the difference between an excitatory stim and a calming stim.  The importance of presuming competence, working through self-injury and highly charged emotional situations have all been discussed.  We were taught that social expression and gestures begin in the hypothalamus travels down into the body, then back up to the somatosensory cortex, to the pre-motor cortex and finally to the motor cortex and how at any point along the way, things can become disconnected causing the Autistic person tremendous challenges in behaving as we non-autistics might expect.  We learned about OCD and how to interrupt it by asking the student to spell a relevant word or introduce numbers and/or a math problem as a way of working with it while at the same time diffusing it.

Soma described how to implement a lesson plan around just about any topic, mental mapping and the different stages of rapid prompting method.  We went over methodologies and how to plan a lesson by using flow charts, listing objectives, relevant spelling words and key terms and concepts that need to be introduced, explored and learned.  She taught us the importance of teaching concepts, and the words used, as well as reading comprehension, spelling, grammar and such abstract ideas as time, symbolism, relativity, belief systems and throughout all of this Soma emphasized the importance of teaching age appropriate or above age level materials while filling in the gaps of what isn’t yet learned.

I’m exhausted, exhilarated, but exhausted and there’s still one day to go!  Today, the final day of the training, we are going to cover how to teach math and math goals, how to take and administer a test, how to teach poetry, literature and creative writing and the training will end in a review aka test. Tests have always been my downfall when I was in school.  I become anxious and overly nervous.  When I was in high school I learned to over study and even then I would become easily overwhelmed if I didn’t know the answer to a question and would get so upset that even the questions I could answer would go unanswered because I couldn’t move on from the one I didn’t know.  Writing all of this makes me aware of how similar my daughter is to me in this regard.  She also becomes fixated and upset when she gets an answer wrong.  She too has trouble moving on to the next question or topic, can become dis-regulated and overly anxious.  I will try to incorporate some of the exercises Soma has taught to see if I can interrupt my obsessive thinking if and when it happens.  So much of what Soma teaches could be used for anyone, even me!  I could write a lesson plan around that…

*5

Soma Mukhopadhyay ~ Training Day 2

I’m halfway through a four-day training with Soma and I have filled more than half a legal sized notepad with notes.  Yesterday we covered Mental Mapping/ the different stages of RPM and Implementation.  I told Soma about my encounter with the child who didn’t want to work and immediately hit themselves.  I described how I’d had them spell “hitting” on the letter board and how this had immediately diffused the situation.  Soma then gave me more terrific suggestions on how to devise a lesson plan around an action such as hitting.  An example of this is (I”m making this up) “I would like to know more about hitting.  What else can you hit?  Do you hit the sky or a ball?”  Soma spoke of how when emotions are running high, switching to numbers and math, which have no emotion can be helpful during emotional outbursts.  “How many times can you hit the ball? Here let’s count.  1, 2, 3, 4, 5.  You hit 5 times and if you hit once more, that would be 87 times or 6 times?”

We spent a great deal of time discussing the ways in which one can learn about a student through their preferences, stims, what they’ve been exposed to, skill levels and abilities, tolerance levels, acquired knowledge and defenses.  Soma then covered how one goes about implementing all of this through lesson plans.  Each step of the way one presumes competence in the student’s ability to learn and be taught without presuming that they already know how to read, write, add and subtract.  Through the various activities it quickly becomes clear whether the student needs to be shown how to spell a word such as “hitting” or whether they already know the word.  On the first day one of the students, whom Soma had never met before, sat down and after working with her for fifteen minutes or so, was asked what his favorite color was.  She had him choose from one of two stencil boards for the first letter.  From that board he chose the letter “r”.  He then proceeded to type ‘r’, ‘e’, ‘d’.  The following day a number of the people  taking the training expressed skepticism that the student actually could read or write.  One suggested that red may not have been his favorite color.

When asked how they knew that he couldn’t read or write, they weren’t able to give specific reasons, it seems many just assumed he could not.  It reminded me of the years and years I spent believing a whole variety of things about my own child, which turned out to be untrue.  I had no proof that the things I thought were actually true, I had just assumed and then behaved toward her as though it were fact.  Perhaps one of the single most destructive things we can do to our children, students, the people we meet is to make assumptions about their intelligence and abilities.  Beliefs based in nothing other than unfounded assumptions and our own biases of those who look or seem to us as not being capable.  These assumptions are dangerous and can do real harm.  As I’ve said before ~ to presume competence and be wrong will do no harm, to presume incompetence and be wrong can and will do tremendous damage.

Soma – 2013

Soma

A Training with Soma Mukhopadhyay

I am taking a four-day training that Soma Mukhopadhyay is giving this week.  Yesterday was the first day and Soma covered the stages of development and different learning styles.  Throughout the entire day Soma demonstrated how one teaches while presuming competence, though she never said those two words or even mentioned this, it is, in fact, what she was doing.  She does not assume a person she’s never met will know how to read or write, but she does presume that the person can and will learn regardless of whether they speak or not.  Rapid Prompt Method teaches skills that create a strong foundation for all learning to take place.

Soma walked us through stims that are excitatory and calming and how to tell the difference.  She demonstrated how one can work with them and how they give us clues about whether the person is auditory, visual, tactile and kinesthetic.  I asked a great many questions about things such as, what do you do when the person you’re working with hits, bites, slaps or pinches themselves or you.  Later after the training had ended I had the opportunity to work with someone who almost immediately hit themselves in the chest and they shouted, “No hitting!”  Fresh from the day’s training, I grabbed a letter board and said, “Oh here.  Spell hitting.”  I held the letter board out and shoved a pencil in their hand.  Immediately they stopped hitting themselves and pointing to first the ‘h’ then the ‘i’ and so on until they’d spelled “hitting” at which point they were able and willing to move on to do some other things.

Afterwards I reflected on what had just happened and remembered something else Soma did when one of the children she was working with tried to bite her.  I am paraphrasing as I didn’t write down exactly what she said. In a very calm, matter of fact voice, she said something like ~ Oh you’re trying to bite my arm.  My arm is not lunch. What else can you bite?  No judgment, no scolding, shaming or anger, there was nothing in her voice to suggest she was speaking of anything out of the ordinary or that this was something to get upset about.

For years I have been baffled by how to respond or even if one should respond to such actions.  I have written about “self-injurious” actions ‘here‘, ‘here‘ and ‘here‘.  I’ve never completely known how to respond and have responded in a variety of different ways, but today… today was the first day I saw someone model a response in an academic setting that made sense to me.  It isn’t that this response will eradicate the need or desire to hit or bite, but it was the first time I’ve seen someone respond in a way that didn’t make it worse, either by scolding, shaming or reinforcing.  As was the case this afternoon, the child I was with, immediately stopped hitting themselves and we were able to get back to work without further comment.

Today is day 2 of the training and it’s very exciting!

Tears and Love

This past Saturday we took Em to meet and have a session with Soma Mukhopadhyay, who developed RPM ~ Rapid Prompting Method for Autism.   I’ve written about Soma before, ‘here‘ and briefly on a number of other posts.  If you want to read those old posts you can put “Soma” into the search box and everything I’ve written mentioning her will come up.  A word of warning, however, those early posts show a very different mind-set regarding autism and my daughter than the one I now hold.  I find it difficult to read them because I had so completely bought into the Autism = tragedy mode of thinking.  As anyone who follows this blog knows, this is not the view I hold now.  It is good to see that my daughter is not the only one who is making progress!

One of the first things Soma did, (who has never met nor worked with Emma before) was comment to us that Em needs help to slow down.  This is identical to Pascal’s observations.  Em’s default is to script or point to the first thing she sees, whether that is a piece of paper or a key on a computer.  So despite the name of Soma’s program, for Emma this is less a literal “rapid” method and more a sustained level of interaction.  During the entire session Em remained focused and answered each of Soma’s questions appropriately.  There was no physical contact of any kind.  Rather Emma was asked to point to letters on a stencil board or to scraps of paper with different options on them.

Soma began with “I am thinking of a month when the leaves start to fall.”

Em then dutifully spelled “October” on the stencil board and my tears began to flow.  “I’m thinking of the season when the leaves grow,” Soma said.  To which Em pointed to the letters to spell “spring.”  For forty-five minutes Soma covered math, the seasons, an Aesop’s fable, reasoning, science and for forty-five minutes I watched with tears in my eyes as my daughter attended with focus while holding on to her string.  Every now and again Em would verbally respond to Soma’s question and then glanced up at her with a little smile.  By the end of the forty-five minutes Soma asked, “do you have any questions?”

“Will you come live with us?”  Was the only question I could think to ask.  I was kidding of course, but it was the only way I knew to sum up how I felt.  For years now we have been trying to find a curriculum that will help Em learn in an academic setting.  For years we’ve tried, her various schools have tried many different methods, none of which have worked.  Yet here we were watching a program that not only worked, but that I could see the potential and the potential is limitless.

Yesterday I decided to try to combine some of what I saw Soma doing with what Pascal has been helping us learn with supporting her typing by creating resistance to her.  I sat on Em’s right side and brought out our iPad.  I also had Nic’s old globe and we talked about how we live on a planet called Earth. I showed Emma where we live and then where one of her favorite people lives in London, England and how to get to London we would need to fly over the Atlantic Ocean.  Em typed, with me providing resistance, “We live on a planet called Earth.  To visit England we have to fly over the Atlantic Ocean.”

This was the first time I have supported Em’s typing and given her the proper resistance.  I could feel it.  I could feel her reaching for the keys.  I could tell when I needed to provide more resistance, I could feel when her body was tensing and when she was trying to perseverate or trying to script.  This was the first time I have worked with Em that I knew without any doubt that I was not directing her at all.  She went on to type that if she could visit any other planet she would like to visit Mars.  We then ended with her typing her full name, her age and where she lived.  She knows all of this and so much more.

And finally, just finally I know she knows.  I know, she knows, without any doubt.

Tears and love.

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Less Than A Year Ago…

If I don’t immediately take notes during and after my typing sessions with Emma, I would wonder whether the words she typed were a figment of my imagination. There is something almost magical seeing and reading the words typed from someone who does not, or does not easily, communicate with spoken language.  It reminds me of the time I went to a lecture given by Soma Mukhopadhyay with her autistic son, Tito who began answering questions from the audience.  Tito is non-speaking and has a great many stims, yet translates his beautifully eloquent, poetic  thoughts into words and has no problem answering any question posed.  It’s often a disconnect for the neurotypical person watching someone who isn’t able to verbally say what they are thinking, yet has no trouble writing their thoughts, which in no way match the presumptions we, NTs tend to make.  If you’ve never witnessed something like this, it can be pretty mind-blowing, which says more about the limitations of neurotypical thinking and the constraints we unintentionally place on others who seem different from us than anything else.

Last night I began Emma’s session with a question.  It’s the same question I always ask her.  “Hey Em, how about after you sing this song we do a typing session together?”  And Emma answered, as she does every time I ask her this question, “Yeah!  Typing session with Mommy!”  Emma’s excitement, in and of itself, makes me incredibly happy.  That she’s interested and (I think) looks forward to our sessions as much as I do, makes me believe we are on the right track.  When we went into the room, now dubbed, “Emma’s office” I tried to think of a question it seemed likely Emma would know the answer to, but that if she typed it out, I would be surprised.  As we are leaving soon to visit her Granma for the holidays, I said, “When we fly to Granma’s we have to first take a taxi to an airport.  What’s the name of the airport we usually go to?”  Without hesitation, Emma typed, “La guardia”.  Wow!  Just wow!  I then asked, “There’s another airport near La Guardia, we don’t usually fly out of, but what’s the name of it?”  Emma, again, without hesitation, typed, “kennedy”.  Whoa!   Then I threw her, what I thought would be, a curve ball and asked, “When we fly out of La Guardia we always take the same airline to visit Granma.  What’s the name of the airline we always take?”  Emma wrote “United”.   EEEEEE!!!!!  Snoopy dance.  Give me a moment while I hyperventilate.  Whooooo, whooooo.

Emma went on to tell me what state and city we live in, the name of the state we were flying to and when I asked, “What’s another name for the city we live in?  It starts with an M?”  Em immediately typed “Manhattan” though she forgot the h and one of the ts.  I followed up with, “And what’s the neighborhood we live in?”  Emma, again without hesitation, typed, “Chelsea.”  Taking another deep breath.  For those of you who are doubting what I’m writing, I understand.  Really.  I do.  As I wrote above, I actually had to take notes during our session, because I knew I would come away as if in a dream.  (Ibby suggested I record our sessions together and I keep forgetting to do that, but I have to remember to from now on.)  That’s what it feels like, a dream.  I absolutely believe in my daughter’s competence.  I believe she is far more competent than most people who come into contact with her do.  I do not for a second doubt that she has a busy, complicated and fascinating mind, filled with thoughts, ideas and knowledge I can only guess at.  But to know this, to believe this, is different from being shown this.  I don’t mean to offend any of you reading this who are non-speaking and communicate by typing.  I don’t mean to offend, really I don’t.  I hope that were Emma to ever read this she will understand what I’m trying to say.  This is not about Emma’s limitations, either intellectual or otherwise, this is about my own.

For all you neurotypicals who can speak, humor me for a moment.  Think about how you would feel if you could not speak.  Think about all the things you know, but couldn’t say.  Now imagine if you were told something simple, like the city and state where you lived over and over, repeatedly, day after day.  Just think about this for a second.  Close your eyes and try to imagine what it would be like to not be able to speak.  Imagine that well-meaning people tried to help you speak through repetition and you were not allowed to move on until you were able to say these things being “taught” aloud.  Imagine how you would feel were you never able to say these things, so you weren’t allowed to move on.  It was assumed that because you couldn’t say them, you must not KNOW them. And yet, all this time…   all this time you really did know these things.  Not only did you know these things, but you knew so much more.  But no one believed that you did.  No one treated you as though you did.  Less than a year ago I assumed Emma did not know.  Less than a year ago I assumed Emma did not understand.

Less than a year ago…

Emma waiting for the school bus with her string

*Em