The Wooden Chair

for blog - the wooden chair

In my last blog entry (‘Look at me’), I mentioned my first session with Ian and sitting him in a ‘big wooden chair’. Perhaps an odd choice, putting a three-year-old in an adult-sized chair, but when I started I didn’t have anything else and grabbed the nearest seat I could find.

When the therapy team got together, the therapists – experienced, knowledgeable – all wanted Ian to sit in a child-sized chair. The speech therapist particularly wanted Ian’s feet on the ground, so I went shopping for child-sized furniture and bought a blue plastic table and a couple of brightly coloured small plastic chairs. The table had a centre panel of pink and yellow flowers, a sticker, and Ian made it his life’s mission to remove it. It distracted him so much we had to cover the flowers with a sheet of plain paper. And then the paper became an object of interest because Ian knew the sticker was underneath …

At first, when Ian’s feet touched the ground, he would stand up. A great avoidance technique. A lot of time was spent getting him to sit down again. Sometimes, when he sat with his feet on the floor, he would rock the chair, leaning further and further backwards. I don’t remember him ever over-balancing (he was too clever for that) but for a while we had to put the chair against the wall so Ian couldn’t lean back.

I questioned the use of the small chair. In the big wooden adult-sized chair, these things didn’t happen. Ian sat cross-legged. His top half could move – and frequently did – but his bum stayed in his seat. It was easy to manage his legs by placing a hand over his crossed ankles.

It affected his eye-contact too. When Ian was in a child-sized chair, an adult (also crouched uncomfortably on a child-sized chair) was head and shoulders above him. When Ian was in the big wooden chair, I knelt in front of him and our heads were the same height. See the picture above, from one of our earliest sessions. Surely this was better?

I persisted with the wooden chair. It was solid and dependable. I liked it. I was closer to Ian, kneeling in front of him, and I suppose as his mother that was easier for me, to be more physically involved with him, rather than spatially removed, in a separate chair, our knees keeping us apart.

Ian, being an amenable little lad, got used to both.

“Look at me – part 2”

Look at me - for blog

That was my side of the story, where all was calm and gentleness.

Ian’s side of the story was slightly different.

In my book, I described it as follows: “I started taking Ian into the classroom every morning. He wouldn’t sit, and he most certainly wouldn’t look at me when I asked him to. You’d have thought I was asking him to peel his own skin!” So for Ian, it was more of a challenge.

He moved around a lot in his seat; he made strange noises; he kept trying to get up; his hands were everywhere. But then …

“… after a few scary days, he did start to sit still for more than a few seconds at a time, and he did start to give a fleeting glance in my direction when I asked for it. ”
(“From the Inside” Chapter 5)

Something changed in him. He still made noises and his hands were all over the place, but now I was getting his attention. He wasn’t just reaching wildly, he was reaching for the things I was talking to him about, the plastic animals, or the books, or my pens.

When the therapy team was formed, each person had to go through their few days. Ian had to get used to the idea that he was required to do the same things and behave the same way, for more than one person. And he did.

Nothing made me happier than watching him walking, sometimes running – yes, running – into the classroom ahead of his teacher.

There was learning to be done, and Ian wanted to be a part of it.


Next time:  “The Wooden Chair”

“Look at me”

Look at me - for blogI remember the first day I took Ian into his classroom as clearly as if it were yesterday, sitting him in the big wooden chair, gently holding his ankles, trying to persuade him to sit quietly. He couldn’t sit if he didn’t know what it meant, so I had to teach him. If he wasn’t absorbing information naturally, I would have to teach him every single little thing.

“Sit, Ian.” A bright smile of encouragement from me. “Good sitting.”

A gentle hand on his chest to stop him falling towards me; a careful stroke on his cheek to praise him.

“Sit, Ian.” He was quiet for a moment. “Good sitting, Ian. Good sitting!”

It didn’t last, but it was enough to give me hope.

I needed Ian to sit still and pay attention. I needed him to look at me. I needed him to make that connection, to share eye contact, human to human, however briefly. It wasn’t enough to be on the periphery of his vision; I didn’t want him looking ‘at’ me but over my right shoulder into the distance; I had to be there, centre stage, interesting enough that he would want to look, encouraging enough that he would want to do it again.

If he looked directly at me, I could guide him to look at other things.

“Ian, look at me.” I pointed to my eyes slowly, and Ian’s gaze followed my moving fingers. The briefest passing glimpse in my direction. “Good looking, Ian!” I smiled at him. “Let’s do that again. Ian, look at me.” This time a gentle hand under his chin to turn his head towards me. Again, a flick of the eyes past mine. “Good looking, Ian.” I smiled brightly.

He lurched sideways in the chair. “Ian, sit. Good sitting.” An encouraging smile.

“Ian, look at me.” Was I more interesting than what was going on in his head? Yes! His eyes flicked in my direction. “Good looking, Ian.”

I held up a plastic cow. “Cow,” I said with meaning. “Cow. Cow goes ‘Mooooo’,” I sounded like an idiot, but I didn’t care. I gave Ian the cow to fiddle with. In my head I counted to ten, then said “Ian, give Mummy cow, please.” I gently prised the cow from his fingers. “Well done, Ian. Good giving cow.”

I held up another animal. “Sheep,” I said, and baaa-ed, and let him take it. I picked up the donkey, named it, and brayed. Then cockerel, giving my best farm-girl imitation of a crowing rooster. Ian smiled. Yes, I was definitely the village idiot.

But I could see something working behind Ian’s eyes. He glanced at me. There was a realisation there. These things have names! He held them in a slightly different way. He wasn’t just fiddling with them, he was looking at them.

“Ian, look at me.” His eyes flicked my way, but this time they didn’t just slide on. There was a pause there. A proper look. With a smile!

My heart leapt.

— o 0 o –

Okay, so it didn’t happen in a day. Or two, for that matter. But it happened quickly enough that I was constantly encouraged to continue.

I learned as I went.

What encouraged him to look at me most? Singing. What was the best praise? A hug. What kept him enthusiastic? The very act of learning.

That is how we started.

About the Book: “From the Inside – Raising, Teaching, Loving an Autistic Child”


THE INSPIRATIONAL story of a mother who made it her life’s mission to teach her autistic son to speak is being told in a book, set for release this month.

Published by Emu Ink, From the Inside, Raising, teaching, loving an autistic child, by Fiona van Dokkum; was launched on Tuesday, December 16th, by the Mayor of Dungarvan, Cllr. Damien Geoghegan.

The book, which covers Ian’s life from birth and diagnosis to childhood and through to his teenage years, portrays the difficulties in progressing his education and development from South Africa to Ireland – and the eventual decision, by Fiona, to keep her son at home and teach him using her own methods.

The result is a remarkable story that is searingly honest, uplifting and thought-provoking but above all encouraging.

Publisher, Emer Cleary of Emu Ink said; “Sometimes you come across a book that is simply inspirational, even if you have no life experience with the topic. From the Inside, is one such book.

“Fiona is a beautiful writer, eloquent and honest. As a person she is determined and driven, and as a mother, strong-willed and loving. All these attributes are what enabled her to teach her child, her way. Her story is one of courage and loyalty to the son she has always referred to as “her little angel sent from heaven.”

“There is so much to be learned from this book, whether you have an autistic child or not. It really is a beautiful story.”

From the Inside includes a photo section as well as a ‘learning’ section, which displays some of the original exercises, created by Fiona and used by Ian to help him to speak.

Fiona said: “It is my hope that this book will inspire parents to believe in endless possibilities – particularly those with newly-diagnosed children, for whom the future will seem very bleak.”

“Getting this book published has been a dream come true,” she added. “Ian’s story deserved to be shared…”

With the mayorOpening remarks by the Major of Dungarvan, Cllr. Damien Geoghegan:

“Can I just first of all begin by thanking Fiona most sincerely for affording me the honour (and it truly is an honour) to launch her book “FROM THE INSIDE”—It is Fiona’s own remarkable story of raising, teaching and above all loving unconditionally her wonderful son Ian.

When I received my copy of the book from Fiona a week ago I decided to begin reading Fiona’s story that night, but not only did I begin reading what is a truly inspiring story, but I didn’t put down the book until I reached the last page…it is that type of story. It is, in my opinion, a truly INSPIRING story about the love that exists between a mother and her son. The love that exists between Fiona and Ian.

To read how Fiona has put her heart and soul into her unshakeable belief that Ian should be given every single opportunity (both in South Africa and in Ireland), to fulfil his potential as child and a human being, is a story that needed to be told, and indeed is a story that needs to be heard by the widest audience possible . . . . I sincerely hope that it is heard by many…

There’s no doubt but for Fiona to achieve all that she set out to is, in my opinion, down to one reason and one reason only…LOVE. Fiona’s love for Ian shines in this book, as does her absolute determination that nothing would come in the way of ensuring that her son would achieve his full potential. Fiona’s love and understanding of her child’s ability comes through in every sentence…

In the book, Fiona has captured that love beautifully. The strength of that love and determination is abundantly clear in the very selfless manner in which Fiona always put the needs of Ian and her family ahead of herself. I must say that it is striking also in the very forgiving way Fiona approaches and deals with those who (for whatever reason) didn’t seem to quite comprehend that, as Ian’s mother, Fiona knew and understood Ian’s needs better than anyone else!

One particular passage in the book captures for me that unshakeable belief that Fiona had, in order to ensure that Ian’s full potential was achieved:

“However, I knew that my child did not need day care. He needed to learn. These children are not brain damaged, they are brain different. Their ability to learn, their capacity to learn is there, fully formed and accessible, hiding – sometimes very effectively – behind their autistic mannerisms. These children need people who are prepared to work their way through the barrier of distracting behaviour to the ‘well of possibility’ within, the jam inside the autistic donut. If no one believes that well of possibility exists, no one will ever be determined enough to make a difference. Making a difference means changing the status quo, encouraging the child to be more than the sum of his behaviours. It means not judging the child by his diagnosis or by his condition, but approaching him as a person first and an autistic person second.”

This passage, which is one of just many touching moments in the book, seems to sum up perfectly Fiona’s approach.

It is, I believe, a daunting task to take on writing a book. It is an even greater commitment when looking after, not just a family, but a child, a young man who needs very special and very dedicated attention, as well as endless hours of love and care.

Fiona seems to have delivered admirably on both counts. You will know this from Ian, who has thrived and mentally prospered under her care and we, the wider public have a book to read which will teach us some understanding of what it is to be autistic and what it is to be the parent of an autistic child.

Once again I congratulate Fiona on a wonderful book, which I know was written out of love for Ian and everything that she believed in…. I sincerely hope that people read Fiona’s account and indeed Ian’s story, as I believe it is one worth telling. In Fiona’s book she has shown that it is well worth writing.

I sincerely believe everyone will take something from this book and it’s my pleasure to officially launch this evening ..”From The Inside” by Fiona Van Dokkum and urge you, not just to buy a copy, but spread the word among your friends as well.”

With Ian - for blog