Autism : From the Inside – Chapter Twenty-Two

Towards the end of September 2006 I had a couple of extraordinary days with Ian when there wasn’t one single word of self-chatter throughout his session. Not one squeak out of place. It was unheard of! I was so excited by this, I wrote to everyone I knew. I was particularly pleased because I had started some new exercises with Ian, and he usually reacted quite badly when I introduced new things.

The first new task was one of those things which had been suggested by the Speech Therapist and something which I had tried with Ian over the years, even as I wondered about the importance of it : Rhyming words. Did this task really constitute something my son should learn? I struggled to see the point of it; I doubted Ian would ever start writing poetry …

Anyway, there I was with brand new flash cards showing, say, a picture of a dog with the words “This rhymes with …” next to it. I looked at these cards and wondered how I should teach Ian this.

I sat with him at the kitchen table, armed with a sheet of paper and Ian’s pencil. I quickly wrote the words ‘hair’, ‘frog’ and ‘mouse’ underneath each other.  

“Okay, Ian,” I said, turning to him, “which one rhymes with Dog? Which one sounds the same?” and at the same time pointing with the pencil to the word ‘frog’. Good ol’ error-free learning! Of course, Ian said the one I pointed to, and then I swayed from side to side in my chair, holding the flash card and chanting “dog… frog… dog… frog…” and Ian joined in with a smile on his face.

Then I showed him the card with the picture of the kite on it and wrote ‘light’, ‘chair’ and ‘table’ on my piece of paper. He almost got it but I guided vaguely with the pencil. Bingo! Again, I rocked from side to side, chanting the rhyming words, and Ian joined in again, smiling.

The third picture was of the moon. I wrote ‘fork’, ‘sit’ and ‘spoon’. I watched Ian closely without assisting him in any way at all, and could see him sounding out the words in his head. Without any doubt in his mind, he said “Spoon!” clearly and determinedly. Gosh. Now I was excited. We swayed together, chanting the rhyming words, laughing at each other. *

For ‘queen’ he picked out ‘green’ with no hesitation; for ‘cat’, ‘hat’; for ‘door’, ‘four’; for ‘bear’, ‘hair’; and for ‘fox’, ‘socks’. I was particularly excited that I wasn’t always writing words with similar spellings, so Ian was obviously working on the sound of the word, not his mental image of the word.

That was new task number one. It seemed to be on its way to being conquered, and with such good humour!

Then I decided to capitalise on one of Ian’s video soundtracks, preparing sheets for him on the computer, writing “A is for ___________” and following that with several blank lines for writing, then “B is for __________” with more lines. The second page had C and D, the third page E, F and G. **

I put the first page in front of Ian and said “A is for?” to which he immediately responded “Acrobat”, straight out of the Spot video. I let him write it on the line. Then I wrote ‘apple’ next to it. I pointed to the next blank line and repeated, “A is for…” and let him think about it. After a short pause, he said ‘animal’, and wrote down the word. I countered with ‘and’ and after a pause, he wrote ‘ant’. I wrote ‘as’ and he wrote ‘an’. I wrote ‘at’ and he thought for a moment and then, with a peculiar determination, said ‘a’ and wrote it!

For B, he immediately wrote ‘ball’ from Spot.  I wrote ‘balloon’, he wrote ‘beach’; I wrote ‘but’, he wrote ‘bed’, I wrote ‘blow’, he wrote ‘bubbles’, I wrote ‘bear’, he wrote ‘bee’.  This was getting interesting.  

C became ‘car’ from him, ‘chair’ from me, ‘cards’ from him, ‘cat’ from me, ‘country’ from him (I didn’t even know he knew that word!), ‘candle’ from me and ‘cake’ from Ian.  

D got even more interesting, with ‘drinking’ and ‘dear’ from Ian. Under E, he included ‘elephant’ (from Spot), ‘egg’ and ‘eating’. Under F, we had ‘flamingo’ from Ian, ‘Friday’ from me, ‘friend’ from Ian (clever boy), ‘farm’ from me, ‘far’ from Ian (oh, very clever, to just take off one letter!), ‘frog’ from me, ‘for’ from him, ‘flower’ from me and ‘from’ from Ian.

Under G, the last page I had prepared, Ian gave me ‘giraffe’, ‘goat’, ‘glass’ and ‘good’. I was impressed. Not only did I have Ian’s full attention during this task, he really applied himself to the problem of finding words starting with the requisite letter. It was marvellous to see him concentrating – you could almost hear the cogs turning!

If words are Ian’s strengths, I was definitely teaching to them. The most bizarre thing about how wonderful those two days were was that the previous day had been the most abysmal lesson we had quite possibly ever had.  I was exhausted afterwards. And then such an overnight success. Quite extraordinary. I was a very happy bunny.

At the beginning of December that year I wrote to Kirsty –

“And what of our Ian? Well, he turned 11 the week before last, and seems to have grown each time I see him. He’s doing well in school at the moment, seeming to find great delight in reading and learning new words. We’ve started reading one of my favourite recent purchases, a children’s book called “Kiss the Cow”, all about a magic cow who gives masses of milk, but only if you kiss her on the end of her nose after milking her. A girl named Annalisa milks the cow but refuses to kiss her nose, saying “Ughhh! Imagine kissing a cow,” whereupon the magic cow stops giving milk and everyone goes hungry.

There are 19 pages in the book, so it’s going to take us a while to get through the whole thing, but Ian happily reads pages 1, 2 and 3 now, and has learned loads of new words. He loves the name Annalisa, and the name of the cow (Luella), putting a musical lilt into the names which is hugely entertaining. He was also deeply self-satisfied when he could finally read the word ‘prairie’ – I whooped and cheered, and we shared a special moment, Ian wearing one of the little smiles he sports when he knows he’s done something really clever.

The story starts so beautifully – “Mama May lived where the earth met the sky, and her house was as wide as the prairie. It needed to be. Mama May had so many children she couldn’t count them all.” (Ian can read all of this.) But the pictures are beautiful – the reason why I bought the book – and the story is delightful. Teaching Ian to say “Ughhh!” (Annalisa’s reaction when asked to kiss the cow) is also great fun.”

In the meantime, I ploughed on in my commitment to my child’s education and continued to make sure he learnt something new almost every day, even if it was just one word, or that he took less time than the previous day to answer a question. When we went out together, I made Ian read the various signs we saw in shops or, on one occasion, at the train station.  

“What does this sign say, Ian?” 

“Please wait here,” he answered. 

“So that means we must wait here,” I told him, as we stood in one place for a while ‘waiting’. And so he learned that the signs around him had to be read and responded to.

I’m sure it wasn’t really the kind of education the State had in mind for my child, but I believed it was important to my child’s future, nonetheless.

Around this time, Kirsty had also asked me about my feelings on being both mother and teacher. This was obviously something I had thought about a great deal. She had suggested that doing both made you ‘face up’ to the autism in a way which someone who was tutor but not mother, or mother but not tutor, would not understand. 

In reply I wrote –

“But does it make you face up to the autism? Hmmm. That comment made me stop and think. Yes, it makes you face up to it (in a working at the coal-face kind of way), but it doesn’t make it any easier to accept it. They’re not the same thing. I still struggle to deal with Ian’s autism on a daily basis. That never goes away. And the future is such a scary place when you have a child like this, an abyss one daren’t really look into because the fear is too all-encompassing. That awful “Should anything happen to us, what happens to Ian?” THAT is the worst of it.”

All in all, though, things with Ian seemed to be going well. He was participating in classes, laughing and learning, and we looked set to enjoy many more good months of hard work. It wasn’t always marvellous and there were days when Ian was just horrid, but mostly he was paying attention and classes had some element of fun to them.

Until one particular Wednesday…  

Blimey! He was awful. I knew that we had good days and bad days, but sometimes there were days when I sat and looked at Ian and had to consciously work at not running away, hiding in the hills and leaving him to it.  

I had presented him with our last task of the morning, a fairly new exercise, which required Ian to remember and write down what he had been doing in school. Ian sat and looked at the worksheet as if he had never seen one before. After having tried to chivvy him into giving me some sort of answer, and fast running out of ‘I’m-an-unremittingly-cheerful-person’ tricks, I leaned back and muttered quietly to the gods, ‘Not a bloody thing’.

Leaning forward again, calm and determined, I asked Ian, “What did you do in school today?”, and he picked up the pencil and carefully wrote ‘Nothing’.

Okay, that was something anyway.

I pushed him to write on the second line and he grudgingly wrote ‘reading’, and then skipped a line and wrote ‘nothings’ and then went back a line and slowly and determinedly wrote ‘No’.

Well, that just about summed up our morning!  

Later Neil phoned me and asked how things were going, and I said, “Please come home. Ian’s being awful and I want to run away.” 

He caught the two o’clock bus and when he got home he gave me a big hug, and sent me to my parents’ house next door for tea and a chat.

Then January happened…

* Rudolph Steiner education – physical activity with learning enhances learning.

If anyone is interested in knowing more about Rudolph Steiner’s ethos, perhaps read – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Waldorf_education Also this – https://www.studyinternational.com/news/physical-activity-lessons-boosts-learning-schools/ (I love the idea of a ‘new study’ of something Rudolph Steiner knew a century ago 🙄)

** This ties in with the video footage I posted – Chapter Eighteen Extras

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