I feel this post should PROBABLY come with a warning and flashing lights because it is motivated by a hearsay comment – one that was reportedly made by a psychiatrist in our area who promotes himself as the local authority on pediatric autism. According to the hearsay, this psychiatrist is of the opinion that for ”people like her” (Lia), going to school and engaging in the various developmental therapies are all just a waste of time. He is said to have asserted that these activities don’t do anything for them. They would be better off in a facility.
This begs the question: Why are people with disabilities so often and so quickly discounted as unworthy, and of no value to our society?
To be fair, he isn’t the only person who has made comments along that vein about Lia. Another healthcare professional commented to me that school for Lia was nothing more than daycare and a break for Mom.
I completely disagree with these assertions. Especially where Lia is concerned.
It’s true that the probability of Lia ever reading a Harry Potter book for herself, or calculating math problems using long division and decimals is slim to none, but I don’t think she is anywhere near maxed out on her potential to learn new things and to retain that knowledge.
In fact, somewhere along her way to here, Lia has acquired some very interesting skills. It’s almost as though she is acquiring super powers, but she waits for just the right opportunity to use them.
One of Lia’s therapy goals is to expand her vocabulary, so I try to introduce her to new words on a regular basis. Sometimes she repeats the words right away, and sometimes she won’t use them until later. I can tell when she is actually using a word to communicate as opposed to echolalia by the way she uses it. When I hear her using a new word more than once, and in the appropriate context, I’ll scribble it down to add to her vocabulary list later. It’s important to keep track of those things because her therapist is sure to ask. Every so often Lia uses words or phrases neither I nor her parents have taught her, and through the process of elimination we can only conclude that she learns them at school. She learns a lot at school, even when people don’t think she’s paying attention.
A while back I noticed that Lia had a small repertoire of signs and gestures that she would use alone or in conjunction with her words when she wanted something. I asked her parents if they had taught her to sign and they said no, she had learned the signs from her teacher at school. That was around the time that I decided I would take it upon myself to learn some of the other ASL signs and teach them to Lia. I figured this would be one way to expand her vocabulary and hopefully enhance her communication skills. I started with some of the really easy, most basic signs, but I was so proud of myself when I mastered the signs for Mommy, Daddy, and please, along with a few others I wanted her to start using. I could hardly wait to get started with “class”.
On this particular day Lia was in a very good mood so I showed her the sign for Mommy, touching my thumb to my chin while holding my fingers in the air and saying, “Mommy”. She cocked her head to one side and just stared at me, so I repeated it. This time she signed back perfectly. I asked, “What does that mean?” and she replied, “Mommy.” Half-way through the rest of my short list I started to realize I wasn’t teaching her something new, I was just giving her an opportunity to share her skills with me. I knew it! Lia’s a Ninja and she has super-powers. Powers she acquired at school.
I have also watched Lia “process” when she is presented with new information that catches her attention. You can almost see the wheels turning in her brain as she tries to grasp the concept or tries to figure out how to use that information to reach a desired outcome. I have watched her pick and pull at sealed packages until she figures out how to free the contents they hold. If she wants to watch a video, she has to set it up because she can do it so much faster than I can. Her mind works. It just works differently. And I can relate to that.
Autism is a very squeaky wheel and I fear that we as professionals get so focused on the deficits that we fail to notice the individual’s strengths. At times, we have a tendency to discount the abilities and potential for growth in “people like her” because of our own preconceived misconceptions. When we fail to give people like Lia a chance to shine, we fail to see the light they bring to the world, and we fail ourselves as much as we fail them.