Surviving the Doomsday, Sort Of

Between 8 AM and 2 PM on Tuesday, January 29, Robert’s yellow wallet disappeared from his locker.  And thus the world, as Robert knew it, came to an end.  The simple and pleasant world where the things stay in those places that one left them.  The world in which yellow wallet kept in the right packet of Robert’s jeans, provided constant comfort and support every time  Robert left the safety of his home or his school.That predictable, safe  world was gone.

Just like that.  POOF!

Robert refused to go on the school bus to return  home. The ride would feel too disturbing and/or too dangerous as the rules were broken and one would not know what to expect even in familiar places.  He was, however,  persuaded to go home with his mother.  He complied mainly to explore the possibility, suggested by his teacher,  that the wallet might be miraculously transferred to Robert’s home. Robert came home and checked the shelf by the door.

The yellow wallet was not there.

It was serious.

It was not the  time to eat.  It was not the time to watch Barney on the IPAD.

It was not the time to  take a sip of  soda.

It was the time to restore  the balance of the universe by calling on the yellow wallet to come back to its place..

So Robert turned to the only representatives of the World he had access to: his mother and his sister.  Repeating hundred times per minute, “Yellow wallet, yellow wallet… (….) yellow wallet” he clearly expressed his determination.  He wrote on big and small pieces of paper, “Yellow wallet.” He typed on Speak It on his IPAD, “Yellow wallet”.

The world, did not give back the yellow wallet.

Robert’s mother tried to fool him by showing him a brown, leather wallet of the same size.  Was she kidding?

Robert’s sister attempted to cheat him by bringing from the store a new, black, fabric wallet.  Exactly like the one which disappeared, except for the color. That was not the way to repair broken world.  Robert placed the new wallet in its shiny box and gave it back to Amanda.   She should know better than that.

Robert voice got louder and louder.  He shortened sounds  to “yell wall”, but added a dramatic pitch. He was hurting and made sure we realized that.

After learning about the doom of Robert’s world, his dad took earlier train and on the way bought  McDonald’s gift card.  He tried to place it in the brown wallet.  Robert took it out.  Wrong wallet, wrong card.  Robert wanted his debit card and his public transportation MBTA card.

He still did not want to eat.  He still did not want to watch Barney.  He did not want soda.  He wanted the pillar of the universe – the dirty, old, yellow wallet to return to its place. “Yell wall, Yell wall, yell wall……”  Dad locked himself in his office with an excuse of finishing his work assignment.

I continued to explain to Robert, that the brown wallet was nicer, that the bank would give him a new card.  That everything would be fine. Robert did not want to argue with me.  He smiled insincerely and said, “OK, OK.”  Then with a key we didn’t even know it existed, he unlocked dad’s  door from outside.  He knew that dad would be the first to give up to his demands.  “YellOW waLLET” he said as clearly as he could.  Dad responded evasively and meekly with vague promises about tomorrow.

Not quite enough, but at least some hope. !

I showed Robert his worksheets.  They were part of his evening  routine.  Maybe hoping that by fulfilling his daily obligation  he would convince the world to do the right thing and give him his yellow wallet back, maybe for some other reason, but Robert started working.  He worked for three hours with a few minutes long breaks during which he ran to Dad. “Yellow wallet, yellow wallet.”   After every break, Robert returned to the table and continued his work. It was the only time that evening when all four of us (including Robert) regained partial sanity.

Soon it was gone.

It was a good sign that Robert  took a bath and  put on his pajamas.  But then we realized that his compliance was a part of the scheme, he concocted. He went to bed to accelerate arrival of “Tomorrow. Robert got up every few minutes and ran to his dad demanding that he kept is promise.  After all Robert closed his eyes, and that meant the tomorrow had arrived.  Dad promised to find the yellow wallet “TOMORROW”. So, where was it?

Over and over, until one or two AM.  More and more persistent and angry.

Only the threat, “If you don’t go to bed, no school tomorrow” forced him to return to bed.  For five minutes.

At 2 AM I fell asleep.  I was awaken by loud, mad scream at 4 AM.  YELLOW WALLET!!!!!!.

I couldn’t sleep after that, but surprisingly Robert could.  I did not wake him until his dad left for work.  That was a mean thing to do, but the only way to reduce the number of desperate calls for dad to find the yellow wallet.

As soon as Robert woke up, he started calling for his dad to keep his promise.  Dad was at work.  Robert could accept that.  When I drove Robert to school, two hours later than usually, he took his brown wallet with McDonald’s gift card and $1 bill with him.  Good sign.  The school put locks on the lockers.  Another good sign.

At school, according to the note, Robert kept asking for the yellow wallet but was relatively successfully redirected to academic work.

He came home happy.  He ate a snack, he drank coke, he watched movies on his IPAD and even danced with IPAD in his arms. He laughed a lot. He kept asking for dad.  He was happy to have him home.  Once he asked for a yellow wallet but did not insist.

24 hours passed since the yellow wallet disappeared and the world did not end.

It was not the end, after all. It was the metamorphosis.

Rebirth!

Time to celebrate!

And sleep.

Oops!

In the past,  I firmly stated that you should teach what you can teach a particular student or a group of students, at a given time. I believed that this was the case with teaching Robert about percents.  I analyzed possible difficulties, I planned ahead, I chose (Or so I thought.) appropriate curriculum and yet,  a small error, tiny omission lead me to a standstill and Robert to unlearning.

A few days ago, I was  preparing  new folders from Take It to your Seat series to practice with Robert previously taught skills.  As I looked through the pages of the Math workbook, I came across a section on finding the  prices of the items on sale.  That was not a topic we had previously addressed but the skill seemed useful and relatively easy to teach. It required the application of  two simple operations: subtraction and multiplication by decimal. When I, however, analyzed the possible teaching methods I couldn’t decide if it would be better to first subtract percent from 100% and then multiply, or first multiply by proper decimal and follow with subtraction.  Moreover, I was not sure if in some cases it wouldn’t be more useful to change percent into a regular fraction and replace the multiplication with  the division by a reciprocal of that fraction.  I was not sure which approach would be the easiest to apply in real life situation.

As  I looked for the support or/and inspiration in  the Unit 2 devoted to percents in Momentum Math  level G, I decided it would  make sense to skip the Take It  to Your Seat for now and introduce percents to Robert in a systematic way.  Momentum Math appeared to be a good tool for that.  I looked through lessons A to H, with the  exception of  the Lesson E, as its title suggested that it was the lesson only about  common percents: 25% and 50%.  Judging by the title, I concluded that it would be useful and easy to digest chapter. There was no reason, to look at it more carefully.

So we went: Lesson A, Lesson B, Lesson C.  No major problems.  We skipped Lesson D.  It was about comparing data, which could be done later, if at all.   We begun Lesson E.  The unpleasant surprise awaited me on the second page.   Beside the problems I was prepared to work with Robert, such as

25% of 60 =?

there were also problems I was not ready to teach Robert at this moment:

25% of  ? = 30

Had I noticed that sooner, I would have practiced or reviewed prerequisite skills or skip this lesson replacing it with my own worksheets. But I did not notice.

Oops!

Robert doesn’t take lightly switching from one kind of problem to another.  He doesn’t like to feel lost. He despise being confused.

More importantly, he HATES when he cannot complete all the worksheets prepared for him for a given day.

As soon as I tried to explain to Robert that this lesson should be left for another day, Robert put both arms on the page to prevent it from being taken away.

I tried to lead Robert through the second sort of problems, but the only thing I achieved was to confuse him. As a result, he started making errors in the first category of problems.

I suggested that we skip just those few difficult problems, but Robert persistently tapped on them letting me know that this was not an option.

I cornered myself.

So I cheated.  I asked Robert to bring me a glass of water from the kitchen.  As soon as he left, I hid the three of the five pages. This scheme, unfortunately, was not a bullet proof.  In the past, for different reasons, I did the same thing only to have Robert looking indefatigably for the missing worksheets and almost always finding them. Still, there was a small chance, he would give up..

When he returned, he started searching.

After a few minutes, he found the missing pages in the binder with  worksheets prepared for the future dates. He hesitated for a second, glimpsed at me,  and…  closed the binder without taking the worksheets out.

I could not believe! How was that possible?

Did he decide that the problems were too puzzling?  Was his distaste for being in a state of confusion stronger than his need to complete the unpleasant task and thus let him conquer his obsessive compulsive behavior?

Was his effort to pretend, that he did not find those worksheets a sign that he had that evasive thing…Theory of Mind?

Or am I assuming too much?

Resisting the Attack of the Questions. Teach First, Ask Later

I was watching a speech pathologist working with my son.  She had almost the same approach I had when I taught Robert at home. The difference was that her pronunciation was better than my, forever foreign, accent would allow. She had a warm, clear voice. She was addressing Robert’s deficits. And yet I became concerned.  I noticed something which I had never noticed when I worked with Robert. If I did not, it was because  concerned with reaching goals, managing behavior,  and mentally recording errors,   I did not look at myself calmly and objectively enough. She and I, we both, asked too many questions. And thus our teaching was reduced to checking what Robert doesn’t know.  We addressed the gaps in his language AFTER we discovered them.  It never occurred  to me, that I was checking Robert’s knowledge BEFORE I taught him related concepts. I should have known better.  I heard it loud and clear at least three times before.

1. I heard it at the  PCDI Conference:

Even before the conference I was aware of  the benefits of the most to least prompting. This prompting was used with Robert after the least to most prompting did not produce results.  When asked, “Do this” while paired with a therapist’s clapping her hands, Robert  responded with the whole repertoire of gestures he previously had learned: clapping, patting his head, and touching his nose. For Robert, “Do this” meant, “Do something”. Since he did not know which particular “something” he should do, he aimed for everything assuming that one of the gestures had to do the trick.

Although the conference solidified my conviction that this sort of prompts was the most beneficial for Robert, I still did not realize  that the most to least prompting, was a  form of a very basic teaching approach:  Teach first, ask later.

During this conference, I also recognized, for the first time, the negative impact the questions can have on slowly emerging skills. I watched a short movie clip presenting  a girl showing a picture to a teacher. She had made this picture  a few minutes before and, at the request of her therapist, she went to show her picture to another person.  That was an exercise in  social skills and communication. The other teacher did not ask, “What is it?” or “Who is that”  etc. The teacher complemented the girl and elaborated on the picture.    I remember the advice of the conference presenter, “Don’t ask what it is.  The student already made an effort.  Don’t punish her by asking questions.  Complement her.  Reward her with verbal prize.   Elaborate, if possible, on the picture’s message. Made the student  feel good not only about drawing a picture but also about showing it to you.”

As I understood then, the presenters wanted to show how not to intimidate a student who initiates communication.  Because the questions required answer which the student was not able to form yet, they were quite  punishing, intimidating, and confusing. Drawing a picture and talking about it are two completely different skills.

I think, that by commenting and elaborating on the picture, the teacher was also presenting the student with the model of how to talk about her artwork.  The teacher was teaching before asking.

2. I heard it from  Bridget Taylor during her short workshop at SNCARC in Westwood.

“If your son (or daughter) doesn’t come to you, when you call him, don’t repeat the request again.  Go to him, take his hand, bring him to the place he was supposed to come to and tell him, “This means come here.”  ”

It was such a simple advice, and such an eye opener.  We should demonstrate what “come here” means before demanding over and over, “Come here! Come here Now!! Come right now!!!!! If I remember correctly,  Bridget Taylor explained, that if we repeat ten times the same request with increased volumes, we will teach that “Come here” doesn’t mean anything if it is not followed by ten other irritated requests.

Again, it was another variation of the same simple rule: Teach first, ask later or… The most to the least prompting

3. I heard it reiterated again, during Carbone’s Verbal Behavior Conference.

That is when I learned about a simple tool of installing novel language concepts:   The teacher asks, immediately provides an answer, and repeats the question.  Student answers.

Teacher: -What is this? A train.  What is this?-

Student -A train.-

It should be  clear that the first question is really not a question  but it is a element of instruction about how to answer this question. Thus,  it is another variant of  “Teach first, ask later.” and  (AGAIN) of the   most to least prompting.  The student has minimal opportunity to  make an error.  This simple verbal construct reduced a lot of stress associated with unsuccessful teaching and, in Robert’s case,  led to increase in his vocabulary.

If  I feel the need to write about something as basic as “Teach first, ask later.” it is because this approach is quickly becoming extinct.

I have to admit, that the most to least approach seemed almost contra intuitive to me. I doubted if it would have ever worked.  It did.  It brought quick results when nothing else worked.

Before PCDI conference, I was eager to ask Robert many questions.  The fact that he could not talk did not make any difference.  I was asking because I did not know any other alternative.  Moreover, I was anxious and I had to check if Robert STILL does not know how to answer.  

Later, I observed what happened when Robert presented his “artwork” or “homework” to dad or any other relatives.  At the sound of the first question, he turned back and left. Although I knew it was not a good reaction to Robert’s communicative attempt,  it was hard for me to convince others to use PCDI approach.  I guess the questions are imprinted in all of us as the first communicative reaction.

I was the one, who, before Bridget Taylor workshop, exhausted myself with calling my son many times before going to him and bringing him to the place he should have come on his own. After the workshop, less than a week sufficed to reduce to one the number of calling Robert to come to me.

If I did not fail  teaching Robert new concepts through “traditional” (?) methods, I would have considered the Verbal Behavior’s  tool of introducing new words artificial and redundant and would not apply it.

In our world, there is not way to escape questions.  They are everywhere. Questions are the hooks which allow one person to attach herself  or himself to another.  Even when we introduce ourselves, we really answer unspoken question about who we are. Yes, there is no escaping questions.  They have to be taught at some point.  But even with questions, we have to teach them, before asking them.

???????????

1995 PCDI Conference, 17 Years Later

I attended a couple of conferences before December of 1995.  One of them was by Lovaas.  I only vaguely remember it because whatever was said or shown there, I had already learned from Lovaas’ Me-Book. I knew what discrete trials were as I watched them being done with my son and did them myself.  I went there, mainly to see the man, who started it all.   Another conference was  presented by a famous, local speech professor. He told a story about a male student who spent many years unable to communicate at ABA school. As soon, however, as the boy got an assistive technology device (or a computer program ) and learned to use it to communicate,  he typed the  message, “Take me out of here.  They are all crazy.” The crowd laughed approvingly.  Not surprisingly, the audience preferred a miracle over ABA. I did not laugh.  I don’t remember anything else from that conference as nothing what was said there  applied  to Robert’s teaching.

In December of 1995  I signed up for the PCDI conference.  The images from that conference, for better or for worse, are still  imprinted in my brain.

For better, because I learned that there were people who not only knew how to teach children like Robert but were constantly looking for novel ways of teaching.  People, who defined criteria for progress, and were not afraid to change program if it was not sufficiently effective.

For worse, because I wrongly assumed that all Robert’s teachers  would not be much different than presenters.

For better, because I learned a lot and I was able to use many of the ideas to teach Robert.

For worse, because I never was able to pass that information/ideas to my son’s teachers and thus was very often disappointed with the quality of the teaching which never quite measured up to the presentation.

Moreover, since so many people attended the conference I believed that it  would not be long before the tools/concepts presented at the conference became known to every special education teacher in Massachusetts.

The future seemed  open to progress.

But it was not.  The ideas were not a match for moldy, from lack of fresh air, walls of special education classrooms.

At that time, Robert was still not talking.  He approximated a sound for “juice” and maybe for something else. What was more concerning, he did not have any receptive labels.  It was hard to watch a presentation because  so many problems and solutions did not  relate to Robert as he was in December of 1995. His issues were the more basic and more serious.   Since Robert did not acquire language despite six months of ABA, he was one of those children that were doomed to not recover according to results of Lovaas’  experiment. As I listened to Patricia Krantz, Gregory MacDuff,  Edward Fenske, or Lynn McClannahan and watched the students performing different tasks, I wondered if my son would ever be able to get to such levels and learn the skills those students had already mastered.

I watched the students seating at the large table, working on an art project and using sentence strips to “chat” with each other.  In 1995, that was not a possibility for my son.  It  certainly would have been doable and beneficial in 2006.

I listened to criteria for transition to main stream, and I doubted if such transition would ever be possible for Robert.  It was not.  What was possible was to transition from one to one instruction to a group instruction. But again, in Robert’s placement in 2006 there was no one who would plan, monitor,and adjust program to facilitate such transition. Nobody attended the PCDI conference.

I was learning new methods, gaining new tools and yet I did not know  if my son’s development would ever allow me to apply the information I was receiving. Today, I am glad I listened even to those lectures that seemed to address needs of much higher functioning children. For once, some of them became useful later.  Secondly,  I learned not only how to deal with very specific, limited range  issues but, because the range of topics was pretty wide, it was possible to apply similar way of thinking to address problems not mentioned in the conference.  Maybe the word “generalize” would explain better what I mean.

As I watched young man emptying dishwasher with the help of  the picture schedule detailing all micro-steps required, I realized  I could do that with Robert. It took a few days to assist Robert in unloading the dishwasher, before he became completely independent.

As I watched children following picture activity schedules by choosing the puzzles and/or other activities from shelves and later putting them away, I knew that Robert could learn this quickly.  Well, he did and he did not.  His teacher was unable to make  Robert  point to the ONLY picture before reaching for the ONLY puzzle. Since Robert didn’t point, he was not allowed to complete the puzzle.  I, on the other hand,  ignored pointing for as long as it was not a functional gesture (Which it was not, since there was only one picture and one toy just in front of Robert.  Nothing to choose from.)   and let Robert to follow picture schedule of three activities.  Which he did. Meantime his teacher  kept recording failure after failure, day after day, week after week, month after month. Unable to make concession and skip pointing, the teacher stopped this program. Oh, well…

I attended other conferences after PCDI. I left each of them with one or two  tools, which, no matter how small they appeared to others, allowed  me to teach Robert and/or manage his behavior. Nothing, however, compares with this presentation.

Just a few months before this conference, we, the parents, were seating in the hospital office of the psychiatrist considered to be an autism specialist. It was a depressing event.  The psychiatrist gave us  a diagnosis and shared his  conviction that there is nothing to be done about it.  We tried to shake the gloom, but it lingered.  It was this conference that finally dispersed those feelings. I felt energized and capable if not exactly hopeful.

I felt that I not only had tools, but also the ability to make the tools myself.

I still have the binder from that conference . When I looked through its pages, I was surprised by how much of what was said 17 years ago is still valid.

Kathryn. When the Words Heal

Two months ago I posted  Three Rejections about our painful experiences from the spring of 2006.  It seemed that at that time, all the doors were closing in front of Robert (and me).  As we, the parents, tried to enlarge Robert’s world by introducing Robert to new places and new activities, the institutions  that, by definition, should be open to him, expelled him one way or another.  I am not sure how Robert felt about this.   Maybe he was relieved that he did not have to go to the school, he did not like.  Maybe he felt that something was missing from his life. I can’t tell.  I know that I felt anger, confusion, and piercing sadness. 

I was sitting at the large,  oval table in a conference room at the local ARC.  Kathryn, representing ARC was sitting in front of me. Next to her sat the representative of, as it was called then, Department of Mental Retardation.  We were talking about Robert.

-“Why don’t you bring Robert to our program?”  asked Kathryn”

” He is very tense lately, and I never know how difficult he might behave.”  I answered, remembering all those times I was called to school to pick him up, because of the behavior the teacher was not able to control.  “I never know if he will have a melt down or not” .  “I would rather keep him at home than be called to take him home.”  I said knowing from the past year experiences that picking Robert up was never easy.  He was aware that my arrival to school meant that he did something wrong. He certainly did not want to admit that.  So he did not want to leave the school.  I felt I did not have any other option but to keep Robert at home.

But the Kathryn said,
“Please don’t  think that you can bring Robert  only when he is behaving perfectly.  To the contrary, when he has hard day at home he should come here. This is  one more reason to bring him here.  We are capable of working with him through any behavior.  We are here to help.”

I do not remembered exactly, word for word, what Kathryn said in the late spring or early summer of 2006.  She  used fewer words.  They were simpler and calmly radiated with meaningful assurance.  I wish , I recorded her words and listened to them whenever I needed to heal from the wounds caused by others.

Robert attended the program twice a week.  There had  never been a problem with behavior. That shouldn’t be a surprise. Kathryn, who was a director of family support, rather administrative position that did not include hands on care,  almost always was with children taking care of those who, on a given day, had the hardest time in the program. By doing so she was not only supervising young employees and volunteers.  She was giving them an example of how to meaningfully engage and take care of young people with many developmental issues.

Later, I learned that Kathryn’s major was Business Administration.  She moved to California and started working for financial institution.  I miss her a lot, mainly because I have never again been so convincingly reassured that others are able of taking good care of Robert even on his worst days.

Intermezzo. On Logic, and Laughter

Last  Friday evening, Robert and I were sitting at our dining table drawing heights in triangles. I was fidgeting with my pencil, when Robert bent his head down and moved it forward wanting to take a closer look at the vertex and the base of a triangle.  The tip of my pencil touched the top of his head and scratched him. Robert felt pain. He shook his head and, for a second,  closed his eyes. When I tried to comfort him, Robert dropped his pencil, picked up mine, and replayed what had just happened. He placed the pencil’s lead on top of his head and shifted it to one side. That did not feel right. Robert put the pencil away, hesitated for a fraction of a second, picked  the pencil again and  used it the way pencils should be used: begun writing on the top of his head.

Something was still wrong. Robert put the pencil away, looked at me inquisitively, and  did precisely what one was supposed to do with an unwanted and impossible to decipher scribbles written in the wrong place.  He grabbed the eraser and energetically wiped the writing off his scalp and hair.

That should have been the end of this story if I wrote it as a joke for Reader’s Digest .  But that was not the end of the story of Robert.

I giggled.  Surprised, Robert looked at me trying to understand why instead of  feeling sorry for him I laughed at him.  He put down the eraser, took it again,  returned to wiping  invisible words, and… smiled.

He seemed to be telling me, “There is something funny going on.  I  share your amusement but I am not sure exactly why.”
He  picked the eraser again.  As he was wiping off  “doodles” from his head, he burst in laughter.
He got it!

He not only KNEW that he did something hilarious, he FELT it.

Replays

Three days ago, I watched Robert running down the stairs. He slipped on one step, lost balance, regained it without falling, and ended up standing two steps below. Instead of continuing his journey to the basement, he turned back, climbed two steps up, and reenacted his misstep.

Well, not exactly.

He bent his left knee and with the right foot he gently traced his previous movement  leading the foot through the edges of the two steps. He did not risk another slip up.  He had full control of the movements.

It was not the first time, I watched Robert replaying such bumps.  Whenever I observed Robert tripping  over something, I also noticed him repeating the incident in a well controlled manner.

I remember that long ago, when we once bumped our heads as we were reading a book, Robert gently placed his forehead on mine as if he were saying, “This is what has just happened.”  I understood the communicative intent then, because he was talking to me.

On the other hand, when I observed Robert replaying his missteps, I considered that behavior to be a form of magical thinking.  Since nobody was around (I was either behind, or in another room.), Robert was not talking to anybody.

Because I also witnessed Robert repeating the faulty step three times (Slipping on dry leaves in Moose Hill Park .), I suspected that this behavior was a manifestation of obsessive compulsive disorder.

This time, three days ago, I was struck by a realization  that the reenactment was a  way Robert was  telling  himself what  had just happened.  He was communicating with  himself… without words. The fact that in the park, he replayed his slip-up three times, probably meant, that he couldn’t get it right on the first two trials.  He wanted to be exact and to understand the incident correctly.

I have been trying to understand the  ramifications of Robert’s reenactments for the three days now. I am concerned.

The fact that Robert communicates even with himself without words, is not to be taken lightly.

Robert! Robert!! Robert!!!

Since this is my 100th post, I have given myself permission to restate the reasons why I am writing this blog.  I want to understand Robert. Who he is, how he learns,  how he thinks, and how he interacts with his environment. I want others to understand Robert, or at least try. Robert doesn’t explain himself. That is  why he  gets  into trouble even when he means well and when he  is 100 percent right.

The day was 24th, the month was December, the year was, the year …. I don’t remember.  It could be 2002, 2003, or 2004. The year is not important. At least not  in this story. The time of the day was a late evening.  Maybe eight or nine.  The Christmas Eve supper with 12 dishes not counting deserts was over. The presents were distributed, according to Polish customs, soon after the supper.  Now Robert’s three cousins were contemplating their presents – clothes and electronic gadgets.  Aunt and Uncle sang Polish Carols while Amanda accompanied them on the piano.  Robert’s father was serving hot tea and coffee to fight off drowsiness, a consequence of overeating.  Robert couldn’t find place for himself. .  He carried a pile after pile of dirty  dishes to the kitchen but refused to be involved in the impossible task of placing them  all in a  dishwasher. He knew his limits.

He walked around from the kitchen, to the dining room, from the dinning room to the living room, and vice versa…  There was  nothing for him to do. He was not  interested in his presents. After all, they were already unwrapped. He could not talk with his cousins. He could not sing with his Aunt and Uncle. But he didn’t want to go to the den to watch TV either. He wanted to stay with all the members of his  family. Except he did not know HOW TO BE with the family. What was he supposed to do?  Where should he sit?  Next to whom?  He couldn’t figure out what was his role in this situation. So he wandered through all the rooms maybe wondering how to attach himself to something or… somebody.

I looked at Robert from time to time, but did not help him to define his role in a house changed by holiday’s customs and guests.  I did not know how to help.  Besides, I was busy picking up wrapping papers from the floor.

As I was folding empty boxes, I heard, “Robert don’t!” The oldest cousin warned Robert.

“No, Robert, no! ” followed the middle one.

“Stop it , Robert!.” joined the youngest brother.

I looked up.  Robert was  moving the piano away from the wall, while Amanda was still playing. That was such a senseless, mean thing to do! The three cousins and I rushed to avert the disaster which we all had envisioned.

Before we reached the piano, Robert had already bent down and got up.  In his left hand he was holding three white envelops.

“Ah” sighed the three cousin together. Ah, sighed I.

“Thank You Robert”,  said one cousin after another. Each of the them opened his envelope. The good American cash, thoughtful present from grandma, was still there.

I don’t know when the envelopes fell behind the piano.  I don’t know how my continuously  moving son was able to notice that fact.

What I know, however, is that because Robert doesn’t have words, his actions are frequently misinterpreted.  That evening, we all, in the end, understood reasons for moving the piano. But often, Robert is stopped from completing his tasks, because the people around think it is wrong , senseless, or dangerous.  When that happens Robert’s motives never come to light.

Up-Side-Down Teaching

I have never analyzed the ways in which  typical children learn  language concepts.  I suspect that the very young children obtain new words through some sort of an impossible to describe osmosis.  The school age children, on the other hand,  are taught new concepts by connecting a few simple, well understood words into  definitions.  I imagine a pyramid made of layers of words. The most basic and supposedly the easiest ones are placed at the bottom. Their internal connections support more complex words placed on higher levels of the pyramid.  That seemed as logical as Euclidean Geometry. Unfortunately, this sort of logic doesn’t apply to Robert’s learning.

Robert often learns new concepts simultaneously with the words included in their definitions.  I suspect that sometimes  Robert has knowledge of the concept before he understands words which were supposed to explain its meaning. When I say “understands” I mean “has visual representation”.

A few weeks ago, my daughter bought for Robert a set of fifteen educational puzzles, Landforms Match-Ups by Lakeshore Learning.  Each puzzle had three parts: a picture of a landform, its name, and its definition. Left alone, Robert can put all the pieces together in a few minutes just by looking at their shapes. When I join him, the game changes.  Robert spreads all 15 pictures on the table.  I keep smaller puzzle pieces with names and definitions in my hand to make sure  that Robert doesn’t see them.  I read the names, Robert points to appropriate pictures.  I read the definitions, Robert is supposed to point to the correct pictures.  But he does not.

In the set there are picture representations of three unknown to him  landforms: isthmus, archipelago, and river delta.  I have never introduced them to Robert and, I am pretty sure,  nobody else did.  But twelve others landforms and waterways, Robert has  already encountered through two geography folders from Take Me to Your Seat  series.

When I say the landforms names, Robert  hesitates but places ten out of 15 correctly.  Some of his errors are explainable. For instance, for a mountain he points to a valley as it is between two mountains.

When I, however, read  definitions, Robert makes only 5  correct choices. Moreover, I suspect that at least two of them were lucky guesses.

Robert knows what the lake is, but he doesn’t know what is  “a large body of unmoving water that is completely surrounded by land”.

After practicing, Robert “knows” what isthmus is, but not what is “a narrow piece of land that connects two larger land areas”.

Are the sentences too long for Robert to process? Possibly.

Somehow, Robert doesn’t have problems with a wordy definition of delta of the river. This definition contains a phrase “mouth of a river”.  And this is a part that lets Robert make a connection with a picture.  In a definition of the ocean, it is the phrase “salty water” which helps Robert to understand it.  But in many other explanations, Robert cannot find any word or short phrase that would direct him toward a proper picture. The words seem simple to me, but they don’t explain anything to Robert.

The fact that Robert learned which picture represents”isthmus” but he didn’t learn what is “a narrow piece of land that connects two larger land areas” is a result of compounding together only vaguely  understood words and phrases such  as  “piece of land” or “connects”.

I wonder if replacing this definition with something more visual like ” a land bridge” would make a difference.  It is possible that Robert selects from each long expression only two words phrases as meaningful ones, and bases his answers on them.

It is also possible, that typically developing children do the same.

As Robert completes the puzzles with my help (?) , he is not learning just what a  peninsula is, but what the expression, “mostly surrounded by water”  means.

Those, supposedly, more specific and more advanced words like isthmus or peninsula are only tools. They allow me to find the gaps in Robert’s basic vocabulary and fill them with the missing fundamental language concepts.

I wonder…

When the person is  being referred to as the so-called  ” visual learner”  does it  mean that for that person it is easier to make a connection between a picture and its label than between label and wordy definition?

Is “the visual learner”, someone who can relate new words to their visual representations, but not to their verbal descriptions?

If so, more questions surface.  What to do, about such a learner?  Ignore his difficulties and saturate his environment with as many visual representations of concepts as possible?  Such approach would allow “a visual learner” and his care providers to manage certain environments but would not address his/her functioning in the world at large. The world at large is mainly…verbal.

I think, the Landforms Match-Ups game offers a solution.  We can connect all three together and allow the picture to become a bridge between two categories of words: labels and definitions.

Counting Fries, Discounting Blessings


Ten years ago, Robert and I were sitting at McDonald’s.  Robert had Big Kids Happy Meal with six chicken nuggets, multiple fries, two containers of sweet and sour sauce, four tiny paper cups of ketchup and, of course, medium size coke.  As it was our (mine really) habit, I kept dispensing fries by two, three or four and asking Robert to count them together. Sometimes I gave  Robert five or six fries at a time and as he was eating them by twos or threes, I asked how many were left.  I didn’t think I had much hope that this activity would help Robert memorize any addition or subtraction fact.  After all, his teachers were doing the same things using cute bear counters for years  with no success.   I guess that I felt guilty for coming to McDonald’s much too often.   Counting fries allowed me to fool myself into believing that I was not wasting  time but to the contrary I was using it productively.  I was teaching.  What could be more productive than that?   I even convinced myself that counting fries was a more promising method of teaching. The edible counters related to real life had more value for Robert than blocks or bears.

I was engrossed by my teaching  mission when I heard, “Bless you, bless you for your work with THIS child.”  I lifted my head and noticed a middle-aged man glancing at me on a way to his table.  Luckily, he passed me rather quickly relieving me from any obligation to respond.  I would not know what to say. I knew he meant well, but his words felt sticky and stale.

Unfortunately, I heard the same phrase, “Bless you” many times more.  I heard it always in a company of my son.

In 2006 in a hallway of the Medfield Middle School, the teacher, whom I didn’t know said almost exactly the same thing, “Bless you for the work with THOSE children”.  She obviously took me for a special ed teacher.

This summer, as I was buying ticket to Plimouth Village and Robert bounced happily while waiting to visit the place he remembered from prior trips, the clerk at the desk  offered to pray for me.  This time, I responded, “Please, don’t.”

Each and every person who wanted to pray for me or bless me, was inadvertently telling me that she or he perceived my son as a  heavy burden. Nothing more.

I did  mind (a little)  being an object of other people pity, but I minded hundred times more that fact that they were unable to notice my son’s deep humanity. It was easier for THOSE people to discharge blessing on me than to say one friendly word to my son.

That is why I had to reject the blessings and decline prayers.