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Autism And The Art Of Conversation

17 May

I am participating in the 2012 Wordcount Blogathon, which means one post every day for the month of May.

Every night, I give my older son George a piggy-back ride to bed. These days are numbered, of course. George is almost nine and he’s all arms and legs. Someday soon, he will too tall and heavy for me to cart around on my back. For now, though, I treasure these last days of being able to pick up my son.

We get to his room, where I dump him unceremoniously on his bed. He tucks himself in while I turn off the light, and then I lie down beside him. For the next few minutes, it’s just him and me, alone in the entire world.

We talk. I ask him questions. He answers them.

Who does Mommy love? She loves George.
Who does George love? He loves Mommy.
How do you feel? Happy.
Did you have a nice day? Yes.
Where did you go? School.
What did you do there? Math.

Always the same questions. Always the same answers.

I follow this ritual for the sense of closeness between me and my son, because it’s a comforting part of our time together. I also do it to help him practice the art of conversation. His verbal communication skills are worlds behind those of typical kids his age. He knows how to talk, how to make requests and the occasional joke. He is starting to make the odd remark for social purposes, and not just when he needs something.

But he does not know how to have a conversation. So I am teaching him.

When George was first diagnosed with autism, he did not know how to point. Over a period of eleven painstaking months, during which I followed the same routine every single night, no matter how futile it seemed, I taught him how to point. I still cry when I think of the first time I was rewarded with him pointing independently.

If I could teach him how to point, surely I can teach him how to have a conversation. After all, they are both forms of communication, right?

From time to time, I switch up the questions during our nightly routine, and ask him something else. When I do that, he never answers the question I ask. He gives an answer to the question he was expecting. I don’t mind. It just shows that he’s not yet ready to move to the next level. There’s no rush. I can wait. It will happen when he’s ready for it to happen.

It’s OK that he has memorized the sequence of questions and answers. Children learn to read in much the same way, rote-repeating sentences that they have heard many times, before making the connection with the printed text. There is every reason to believe that George’s relationship with conversation could evolve in much the same way.

While I’m helping him learn a skill that will be of value to him for his whole life, I am treasuring those nightly moments we spend together.

(Photo credit: Kirsten Doyle)

Moments

15 Feb

A life can change in the blink of an eye. A missed subway train, time spent looking for car keys, spending ninety seconds to finish the chapter of a book. A fifteen second delay, a chance look at a piece of garbage, a single step in a particular direction. You never know what your “thing” will be – that seemingly insignificant event that ends up changing, taking, or saving your life.

One day just before Christmas, my husband was delayed by about fifteen seconds when leaving a coffee shop. Those fifteen seconds saved his life. Because if he had left on schedule, he would have been right in the path of a car that unexpectedly lost control on the highway.

Many years ago, when my life was in tatters, I accidentally glanced at a piece of scrap paper before tossing it into the garbage can. The advertisement on the piece of paper ultimately led to me travelling to Israel in a trip that changed the course of my life.

Two weeks ago, my aunt took her dogs for a walk. It was a warm sunny day, and she was happy. When she saw a car approaching, she took a single step to avoid it. If she had stepped in one direction, who knows what would have happened? But she stepped in the other direction, and within seconds she was dead.

Life takes us in very unexpected directions. We find that things don’t always happen according to plan. We realize that fate or coincidence – depending on your beliefs – has given us a reprieve, a second shot at life. We suddenly find ourselves winging our way from this world to the next.

We cannot prepare for everything that life throws at us. We can plan for old age, but there’s no guarantee that we will get there, or that our plans will work out if we do. We can resolve to make amends with someone “tomorrow”, only to discover that tomorrow did not come for that person.

There is a message in all of this:

Live your life to be happy because you don’t know how much of it you have.

Love your friends and family hard because things could change at any instant.

Don’t let the sun set on an argument. For some people, it will not rise again.

Take a chance now and then. Don’t grow old regretting opportunities that were missed.

Live for the moment – this moment – because you don’t know what will happen in the next.