It was during these summer holidays that Ian attended a course of Auditory Integration Therapy, which aims to address the sensory problems such as hearing distortion and hyperacusis (oversensitive hearing). These are said to cause discomfort and confusion in people suffering from learning disabilities, including Autism. The hypersensitivities are believed to interfere with a child’s attention, comprehension, and ability to learn. “AIT is designed to improve the person’s ability to process sounds by ’re-educating’ the brain. This is done by playing electronically modified music or other sounds in which the frequencies have been changed”(1).
At first Ian seemed a little stunned by the sounds coming into his ears through the headphones. It certainly wasn’t music he would ever have heard before, and after being messed about with by the machine even less so, although he did seem happier when the New Orleans jazz track came on! However, he remained mostly silent throughout, at times almost stunned and he just sat, staring into space without moving.
Towards the end of the first week he became quite noisy, almost experimenting with his inability to hear his own voice because of the earphones. Because Ian couldn’t hear me, there was no point my trying to tell him to be quiet, so I wrote down on a piece of paper “Stop” and “Mouth Quiet”, pointing to my eyes with two fingers for ‘Look at me’, pointing to the paper for him to read the words, and then giving him a thumbs up for ‘Good’ when he quietened down again.
The speech therapist was astonished by this silent exchange of information, all of which had the desired effect, and in my head I found myself thinking Yes, my son can read, and yes, he does understand. Again, I was dismayed by the lack of understanding of the autistic mind, and the inability to see the working mind behind the eyes. “Push a bit”, I wanted to say, “You may be astonished by the results”.
For the first week, the AIT seemed to be working some kind of magic. I noticed that Ian was forming longer sentences than usual – instead of saying his usual “Juice please, Mummy” he was now saying “Ian want juice please, Mummy,” and he responded quickly and without complaint to requests which previously may have been met with some form of resistance.
However, the second week of AIT seemed to take him back to square one. In fact, he appeared to be experimenting with his autism, almost milking it for what it was worth, and there was a definite resurgence in certain iffy behaviours. I certainly didn’t appreciate the deliberate elbow into my throat, which Ian managed to deliver when I was brushing his teeth one morning. Ouch!
Ian continued to accept the headphones and sounds because he’s amenable that way, although he was keen for it to be over and he said quite clearly more than once, “Ian want ‘working is finished’ please Mummy”* – possibly his longest spontaneous unsolicited sentence yet. However, generally I felt that whatever had been achieved in that first week had been undone by the second.
Once Auditory Integration was over, our sessions returned to normal speech therapy.
During one of these sessions, the speech therapist had shown Ian an illustration of an animal with the query, “What is this?” – to which I somehow fully expected Ian to reply “Well, it’s a cardboard square bearing an infantile representation of a tiger, otherwise known as a flashcard or picture”. This rather mad thought ran through my head because I lived in a world of endless possibility with Ian, where what he actually did and what I believed he could do may not always coincide, but where the chance of them coinciding could never be ignored.
In truth, I believed that Ian stored his extensive knowledge in a clearly compartmentalised filing system, and the identification of any animal would be found in his brain in the general file “Animal”, and the information required could be retrieved accurately and swiftly by posing the alternate question “What animal?” Cautious to step forward and demonstrate, I showed the speech therapist that Ian would respond almost immediately to a question phrased this way, when he was taking up to twenty seconds to give an answer to her question ‘What is this?’
Then she presented him with an alphabet of plastic letters and he promptly set about lining up the letters to make the names of the various animals on the flashcards, one after the other : tiger, elephant, bird, lion, Cinderella … No, Ian! Focus!
Importantly, during the holidays a spark returned to Ian’s eyes which I hadn’t seen for a long time. There was a clarity in his sustained eye-contact, and I suddenly found myself loathe to send him back to the Autism Unit where I knew they would not only not notice the spark, they would extinguish it.
* The phrase ‘working is finished’ came from the early days when we were teaching Ian sign language. At the end of each therapy session, the therapist would say “Working is finished!” giving Ian the hand sign for ‘finished’ as they said it. Ian latched onto this, and never forgot.