Autism : From the Inside – Chapter Fifteen

School with Ian swung between rewarding and occasionally frustrating but I knew he was learning things. Within one week he learned to put on his own socks (once he got beyond the idea that I would help him do it), and he could undo buttons as well as doing them up. He was counting objects on the table and giving me a confident and full response, “There are twenty-seven beads!” when I asked him how many of the blue beads there were.

It had taken a few weeks but he got there.  

He learned to squat and stand on one leg by himself during our exercise session, to co-ordinate saying ‘out’ and ‘in’ with the movements in star jumps, and he could, at last, touch his toes while I held his knees*. He could cut reasonably well with a pair of scissors – when I gave him a pair sharp enough to cut. He could differentiate between and point to ‘big’ or ‘little’ objects, although occasionally he did so appallingly badly I would wonder how he’d got nine out of ten for the same exercise the previous day! His writing was improving slowly and his reading could be extraordinary, depending on the position of the stars…  

On the downside, despite my best efforts, he still had no understanding of the concept of ‘weather’ – or maybe he really did, because pointing to ‘cloudy’ was a pretty good coverall in this part of the world! – and he was making no improvement at all in the naming of facial features.

I was standing so close to the coalface it was almost impossible for me to see the bigger picture. My life revolved around how much Ian might concentrate on any given morning, or how much self-chatter I had to fight my way through. The fact that he was a reading, talking, thinking child who had a vocabulary of at least 500 words and could do so much was often swamped by how he misbehaved around the house, or by how insecure I was feeling about what I was teaching him.  

I approached my ‘teaching method’ from two specific standpoints : ‘Is this useful to Ian’s future?’ and ‘If an Inspector came round today, would I have anything that looked like anything to show him?’** so our progress was a bit haphazard, but progress was made. I had come to love Ian’s capacity to learn – particularly his love of anything to do with words.

So I forged on, reassured by my sweet husband that despite my lack of formal training I really did know Ian best, and reassured greatly by Ian’s own progress. It was not easy, but some days were so rewarding I knew we were on the right track.  

I had also kept in touch with Ian’s erstwhile speech therapist, Ruth, and wrote to her –

“…it’s a funny thing, teaching your own child. You wonder time and again whether you’re doing it right. After all, in the absence of any training or qualification, who am I to say what – or how – my child should be taught? But with a child like Ian, when things go well it’s all so obvious. Our lessons are filled with humour, from sly smiles when Ian makes deliberate mistakes to see my reaction, to near hysteria when a difficult task has gone well. It’s entirely up to me what I actually teach my child, so I can examine Ian’s entire range of life skills and see where the gaps are, then make up tasks to bridge those gaps – and decide how I’m going to teach them.

Because Ian’s word recognition skills are so profound, I have taken to using the written word wherever I think it may work (actually I wish we’d tried this years ago). It was taking me weeks to teach Ian the difference between big and little. He just didn’t seem to be getting it. Then I had a brainwave (actually the opposite of a brainwave, a realisation that I was being stupid). Ian can read the words ‘big’ and ‘little’, so I wrote them down on a piece of paper and cut them into separate labels. I lay these two labels side by side. “Ian, point to ‘big.'” For a moment, the utter simplicity of the task flummoxed him, but then he tentatively pointed to and said the word ‘big’. Much praise. “Ian, point to ‘little’”. No hesitation this time, but he kept glancing at me to check I didn’t want anything else from him. We tried it several times, and the task was so simple there couldn’t be any mistakes. Then I added the toys I had been using previously. Big Lion, a large cuddly teddy and Little Lion, a small plastic model. By keeping the labels on the table, there could still be no mistake, and suddenly we were getting 100% for an exercise which last week had been entirely unstable.

I’m still keeping the labels with the toys for the first part of the task, but can now remove the labels from the table, repeat the task, and still get 100% correct responses. Ian is happy because he knows he’s getting it right, and I’m happy because I feel like a good teacher.

Ian’s also able to say his name clearly (“My name is IAN!”), address and telephone number now, and is learning to give the correct response (“Yes”) when I query “Is your name Ian?” We’re now working on plurals (one bird, two birdssssss; one car, two carssss) again with labels and toys, and he’s beginning to get it. I’m also trying to get him to complete sentences with the appropriate word – ‘The …… is in the book’ with the options ‘tree’, ‘juice’, ‘sky’ and ‘story’ on small pieces of paper which he can insert in the sentence; and ‘The juice is in the ……’ with the options ‘bed’, ‘car’, ‘bath’ and ‘cup’, etc. Because Ian can read all the words involved, these exercises become a lesson in comprehension – if he didn’t understand the sentence, he couldn’t give me the correct response – and so far he’s doing very well. Certainly the speed with which he scooped up the slip of paper with the word ‘story’ on it and placed it in the gap provided and likewise put the word ‘cup’ at the end of that sentence, let me know he understood what I wanted. He then read me the completed sentences and seemed content when they sounded right.

It must be said that when we’ve romped through his tasks together, and shared so much humour, it gives me a real high because he’s making great progress and seems happier within himself than he has been for a long time. In that event, I can’t be going that wrong, can I?”

Several months later, during March of 2004, Ian surprised us one evening while I was cooking supper by asking to “go to the classroom”. This in itself was a surprise, but not a request I was going to ignore so I took him there. When we got there, he spent a few moments making music on the electric organ, and then I sat him down at the table and presented him a book, which contained words I knew he could read as well as words he was learning. He then produced the best, most fluent reading I had ever heard from him. Sentence after sentence, pointing to the words with his own finger. He barely paused for breath. It was another real Wow! moment.

Things were going well with Ian’s homeschooling programme, but in order to assess where we stood, I invited Gail – a psychologist who worked at a school for autistic children in Cork – to visit us and assess Ian. Gail came to our house and spent a couple of hours in our little classroom, observing Ian as we ran through most of the exercises we were working on at that time.  

Her report arrived a week later and I was gratified to see that she said we were working on “a fairly comprehensive list of programs that address a broad spectrum of Ian’s educational needs”. Overall, she seemed pretty impressed, which gave me confidence in what I was doing.

Gail also gave me some new exercises to work on with Ian, as well as a specific plan of action to encourage ‘classroom self-management’ (school self-sufficiency), something her school was geared towards, which would hopefully teach an autistic child how to cope in a normal classroom setting.  

As a result of this, Ian was to be presented with a list of work to be done, which he would read through before he started. The list might read Physical Exercises, followed by Reading, followed by a Word Search, followed by Work On Plurals, followed by a Trampoline Time Out, followed by Cutting (I was trying to teach Ian to cut on a line with scissors rather than just annihilating a piece of paper, but his efforts were really haphazard), then Writing, then Sentence Building, followed by a Music Break. Each item on the list had a vacant square on the right-hand side of the page into which Ian stuck a sticker when the exercise was complete. He took to this approach like a duck to water, and also learned (within a week) to say “I’m finished” when a task was complete. All work was placed in order in a pile on his table, so Ian could take it, do it, and tell me he’d done it, with almost no help from me.  

Not every day was peaches and cream …

A new thing I had started Ian working on was a Word Search, which was a real breakthrough because it tapped into his ‘splinter skill’, his natural talent for patterns and his love of words. Sitting watching him finding the words from the jumble of letters and marking them off, entirely on his own, quiet and concentrating, wrapped up in his work, was a most wonderful sight. Hearing his soft husky voice saying, “I’m finished” when he was done was just an added bonus.

Then Gail suggested I try working with two lists of work, taking a break after the first list and then returning to the classroom to start on the second list. We worked through the first list pretty well, went into the garden for a swing on the jungle gym, and then returned to the classroom for list number two. Ian shutdown completely! He looked at the new list with absolute disgust and refused to co-operate at all. The minutes ticked away … his opinion didn’t improve. It was a pity, really, because he had started the day in excellent spirits. The second list had to be abandoned; it was just too much.

I had started a new task with Ian, which involved two columns of things down either side of an A4 piece of paper, with the word ‘Match’ written at the top of the page. They could be numbers, letters or pictures to start with, the order on each side of the page was different so that the child had to draw a line to connect the matching numbers/letters etc from one side of the page diagonally to the other, like this:

Ian loved this, and quickly romped through the easy ones. So I began to make the task more thought-provoking, listing animals with their babies – cow/calf, dog/puppy, duck/duckling, etc, concepts like bed/sleep, cup/juice, chair/sit, or plurals like goose/geese, foot/feet, house/houses, tooth/teeth, etc. Ian had no trouble with these either, so I took it a step further with more abstract ideas like sky/blue, grass/green, sun/yellow, clouds/grey, flowers/pink. This last one really caught Ian’s attention and he spent quite a while reading it but when he saw the connection, he was away. It was marvellous to watch the concentration on his face and to know that he was actually really thinking about things. It was hard to find tasks which captured Ian’s interest, and I was very grateful for these simple yet thought-provoking exercises.

* Because of Ian’s toe-walking, his hamstrings were exceptionally tight. I worked tirelessly to help his stand flat on his feet, and to gently stretch the muscles on the backs of his legs to make this easier for him.

** Of course a School Inspector never appeared. I realised fairly quickly that by removing my child from the system, he had become just ‘one less autistic child to worry about’, and no one seemed to care what we were doing or how we were doing it.

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