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