Relative Intelligence 2

Many times I felt that what I was teaching Robert seemed to others much above his ability to understand.  I did consider that this might be true. However, as long as Robert didn’t protest I went on with my teaching of skills or concepts as if he understood or WAS ON A WAY TO UNDERSTAND THEM.  I did that because I really didn’t know what he knew or what he was capable of.

But then I persuaded myself that teaching what appears to be beyond child’s ability although might look foolish to outsiders was still better than teaching much below child’s ability to learn. 

UNDERESTIMATING is much more damaging to the child’s development than OVERESTIMATING.

When we overestimate we just make fool of ourselves.  When we underestimate we bury the child’s brain.

Luckily for me, Robert taught me that early on.  He was as determined and persistent in teaching me as only a child with autism can be.

First lesson Robert gave us:

Our family was passing by MacDonald on a way to Stony Brook Audubon Park when Robert, between three and four at that time, started to wiggle in his car seat. He kicked many times the seat in front of him.   He made loud noises.  From past experiences we knew that wiggling, screaming, and kicking meant that our son wanted us to stop at MacDonald.   Yet, we pretended we didn’t know what he meant as we decided not to stop at MacDonald but go to the park first.  We kept silent or talked about something else as if we DIDN’T KNOW what was on Robert’s mind. As we purposefully ignored Robert’s behavior, the behavior got worse. Still, we felt very assured that what we were doing was right as we were already past elementary training in Applied Behavior Analysis.  We knew that we should ignore the behavior- put it on extinction.  We were prepared for the increase in screaming and kicking as typical extinction outburst.  By not paying attention to kicking and screaming (as long as it was not dangerous to Robert or others) we would have taught Robert that tantrum was not a way to request anything.

I knew that and yet, for reasons I cannot explain, I did something different.  I said, “Yes, this is MacDonald.  We are not going there now.  I know that you want fries and chicken fingers, but we are going for a walk first.  We will come to MacDonald later, after walk.”  I said that, or something like that not really sure what part of that speech Robert understood. Well, it was worse than that.  I said that not believing that Robert understood ANY of my words.

Yet,  Robert stopped screaming, kicking, and wiggling. Just like that!


I got it.  Robert was not mad because he wanted to go to MacDonald. He was mad because HE WAS NOT UNDERSTOOD. Because he couldn’t let us know what he saw or wanted.

He, probably, wanted to go to MacDonald but much more than to eat fries he wanted to connect with us; to share with us.  And we were not getting it.

By treating Robert as incapable of communicating we rendered ourselves incapable of communicating with him.

Second Lesson

It was late evening. After supper I was taking Robert to the bathroom on a second floor of our apartment to prepare for bedtime.  As we turned from a narrow hallway to the stairs we passed the main door to our town house.  Exactly in this moment Robert leaned on the door stretching his arms toward the chain lock at the top of the door. “Open, open” ,he screamed.  I immediately “understood” that Robert wanted to go outside.  I stated, “No, we are not going outside.  It is dark.”  I opened the door to demonstrate to Robert that it was, indeed, dark.  He took a step outside, looked left and right, and calmly returned inside.  But as soon as I put a door chain in the lock, Robert screamed and stumped his feet.  He kept repeating, “Open, Open.” Then he said, “Call dad”.  When he said that we returned to the kitchen so we could call Robert’s dad who worked late that evening.  Yet, when  I took the phone of the hook Robert became upset again and ran to the door. He didn’t want to call, after all

The whole next hour or two we spent by the door.  Robert spread himself on the floor kicking and screaming in distress.  Got up and leaned on the door reaching for the chain lock.  He was saying, “Open, open, outside, door, call dad”  in different orders.  Nothing more, nothing less.  Over and over.  I tried to ignore it. I tried to persuade Robert, that we couldn’t go outside. I tried to pick up Robert and carry him upstairs despite kicking, hitting, biting. But Robert, Little Houdini, could wiggled out of any arms and he wiggled out of mine.  Once, twice, ten times. All during this everlasting tantrum I  was convinced that Robert wanted to open the door so we could go outside. My brain was fixated on a way to dissuading Robert  from going outside and nothing else entered it for a long hour or two.

I became exhausted and gave up on  Robert’s a bath. Instead I  decided to wait for my husband to help me. I sat by the door.  Robert was still spread on the floor kicking and screaming. I couldn’t help but admire his determination.   And just than some other idea entered my mind.  Radical idea!  So just to check how ridiculous that idea was I… unlocked the chain.

Robert immediately got up from the floor and calmly walked with me to the bathroom upstairs. He took a short bath,  went to bed, and fell asleep.

So that was it.

My son  wanted the lock to be open not because he wanted to go out.  He wanted his father to be able to enter upon returning from work.  He was letting me know using all of his vocabulary  that related to the situation.  He was saying “call dad”  because, at that time ,he couldn’t separate words “dad” and “call” so he only could say “call dad”. Thus, when he kept repeating  “Open, open, call dad, door.”,he was trying to say, ” Open the chain lock so my dad can get inside when we are sleeping upstairs.” I should understand that it was not about going outside.  After all, he calmly returned home after I let him look outside.  Moreover, he didn’t try to put his shoes on, as he used to do whenever he wanted to let me know about his plans for outside walk. I should know. I should understand!

But how could I?  How could I even assume that my  4 years old would care if his father were able to enter the house?  How could I believe that he  understood that the inside chain would prevent his father from entering?  How could I see a caring, thinking, planning, full human being in my disabled son? He had autism, he couldn’t talk!

And yet, how could I not?.

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1 Comment

  1. marika grofno

     /  December 2, 2012

    I’m glad you could get past the internalized ideas about what autism is and could end up using your own mind, and understand your son. this was a great post.


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