No, actually, I was wrong about Pamela's ability to learn non-verbal communication. As a faithful subscriber to ARRI, I had read numerous articles about how difficult it was for autistic people to read and make facial expressions and perceive eye gaze direction due to differences in the amygdala and have trouble interpreting gestures due to a deficit in mirror neurons. (If you do not really know what mirror neurons are, check out this fourteen minute video--my cyber friend Poohder gave me this link and pointed out that Daniel Glaser is a lead researcher, but there's no relation that I know of). I remember listening to Eric Courschene present his findings on the attention-shifting difficulties due to difference in the cerebullum.
Not only that, I saw it with my own eyes. When Pamela took sign language classes at homeschooling co-ops when we lived in Minnesota, I saw clearly how much she struggled with picking up the nonverbal nuances like facial expressions when she signed. So, like most parents, I assumed that, because of the brain anomalies found in autism, she would never be able to learn these things, so why bother!
When I read about the possibility of Pamela learning to read and do nonverbals, I was skeptical. Afterall, she was seventeen years old--way, WAY, WAY beyond the cut-off for neural plasticity according to the experts. Sure, it took Pamela three weeks to learn to follow my eye gaze, but now she doesn't think twice about following mine or directing me with her eye gaze. She uses her eyebrows a lot now and her face no longer requires extreme emotion to register an expression. She has mastered a limited gesture vocabulary of her own, and she can read many more of mine. Our consultant remarked the other day that Pamela is showing signs that her mirror neurons are at work because she watches me so intently and learns from it.
If you want to know more about the kind of nonverbals RDI parents and professionals address, Horizons put out a great article called Nonverbal Communication: What’s it all about?
You may think that having a purely nonverbal conversation is unnatural, but it's not! The other day we were in line at the store, and it was a long line! A cashier at the other end of the checkout aisles caught my attention and, when he noticed my eye gaze was in his direction, he pointed to me and then pointed to his check-out line. Then, I pointed to myself and he nodded, so I started walking. As I got closer, he pointed to the correct aisle more deliberately and I nodded.
Pamela can have conversations like that. Last week at the store, I put a shopping basket on the conveyor belt and Pamela put five items behind it. Suddenly, she handed the cashier one item after another, being careful to match her pace with that of the cashier's. She forgot the fifth item, so the cashier pointed to it and Pamela followed the eye gaze and point, grabbed the item, and handed it to her communication partner. I just stood back and admired the whole thing! Their conversation was beautiful.
Sometimes, it may feel like you are taking a step backwards when focusing on nonverbals, instead of verbals. However, the first thing infants learn is nonverbal communication. It seems backwards to focus exclusively on verbals first with autistic children, when typically nonverbals lead to verbals. The difference is that we have to be more deliberate about teaching them to autistic children, but I am finding with Pamela that the effort is worth it.
My consultant and I agree that Pamela is making progress in using expressive gestures, and we will continue to spotlight it for a long time. As Pamela's teacher and parent, I try to balance working on verbals during school time (at least with the association method and oral narrations) with being overly nonverbal when we are not in school mode. When I can get away with it, I try to be nonverbal during school time, but that is not always feasible. The key is to be mindful of opportunities as they arise.
I have noticed Pamela is using more and more declarative language and is doing some higher level thinking. Here are some examples that may seem little to you, but are big, big advancements:
- We usually do math in the morning but forgot. I did not pull out her math book after lunch, and she said, "You forgot math!"
- Steve drove the radio-less red car to work today. When Pamela realized it, she ran into the house and, "Daddy drove the red car. Go in grey car!" She raised her fists and said, "Hurray!"
- When we were in the car, I made a point to be very nonverbal and expressive. At stop lights and at the drive through, we were reacting to her talking about lions, bears, shots, claws, etc. She loved it and her face lit up. None of these were stims either--it was fresh conversation.
- Pamela usually listens to CDs in the car. At one point, she decided to listen to the radio and told me, "FM!"
- When we reviewed Miracles on Maple Hill, she seemed concerned about Joe being lost. With The Story of the Trapp Family Singers, she talked about how sad they were because they have to go back to Europe. A few days later when she found out they were in jail (immigration glitches at Ellis Island), Pamela was shocked!
- When we were sitting on the rockers doing schoolwork, some birds and squirrels got noisy and Pamela commented about that.
- A paper had flown into the bushes (unbeknownst to me). I had been looking for it while Pamela worked and, when I found it, I told her. She said, "Ew!!!" because she thought it would be dirty. She looked surprised when it was only a little wet, but not dirty.
- One cool morning, Pamela walked in the room and said, "I'm wearing a sweater and socks." Then, we talked about how it is good to pay attention to the weather and wear a sweater and socks if it feels cold.
- I walked out to the back porch, and Pamela was all excited about a wasp she killed with a rock. It was merely stunned so we negotiated back and forth until we decided I better finish the job.
- I bought the complete New Testament of The Illustrated Bible: Complete New Testament from eBay. I showed it to Pamela and told her it was hers. I opened it to the first page of Matthew with the genealogy. She was okay about it--like how much can you do with a bunch of names? Then, when I turned the page and showed her the pictures and text, she loudly gasped. She was very surprised! Then she said, "Gasp!" spotlighting her surprise even more.
- Pamela frequently asks me, "Where's great grandma?" followed by a little sign language stim for "died" and "heaven." The other day, Pamela asked me if great grandma's soul could talk to God. When I answered in the affirmative, she wanted to know what they talk about! I guess she thought, if the body was in the ground, it would be hard for a person to talk to God.
- I was at the computer. Pamela was talking to me so I turned to give her attention. She didn't like me being low verbal so she got a little rude. I looked down and pouted and she said, "I'm sorry," and kissed me on the top of my head!
- Pamela and David were sitting on a bench about Wal-mart while I checked out. They were at the other end of where I checked out, so I headed the cart in their direction. David was listening to his iPod and was not paying attention. Pamela saw me walking toward her and headed in my direction, but David did not. I decided not to say anything to see what she would do. She turned around and noticed David was still sitting. So she went up to him and tapped him to get his attention!