Sometimes, Pamela enjoys filling out the children’s bulletin during church. At other times, she makes lists of things that interest her: calendars, movies, history, etc. Today after the service, a friend commented on her “perfect” handwriting. Little did he know that, when she was six years old, Pamela seemed destined for dysgraphia. She cried when we gave a pencil and paper. She had no handedness, couldn’t cross the midline of her body, and could do little more than scribble.
In our well-intended efforts to catch her up to her peers, her teachers and I created a bad habit, the habit of frustration. Because Pamela lacked language, she couldn’t tell us that the bar we set was completely out of reach, unfair, and inappropriate. The only thing she could do was throw herself on the ground and have a fit. I learned through the school of hard knocks how to cure Pamela of this habit, and Charlotte Mason’s ideas outlined in her second book dovetail very well with what we did.
“Let us remember that this bad habit has made its record in the brain”—Pamela’s habit of frustration in writing was so strong that piercing screams began the moment she saw pencil and paper. It was an automatic reflex like Pavlov’s dog salivating at the sound of a bell.
“There is only one way of obliterating such record; the absolute cessation of the habit for a considerable space of time, say some six or eight weeks.”—We timed our first day of homeschooling around a move during the summer. Because we were too busy dejunking, packing, driving, visiting family, and unpacking, Pamela had about six weeks of freedom from worksheets.
“During this interval new growth, new cell connections, are somehow or other taking place, and the physical seat of the evil is undergoing a natural healing.”—While she still tantrumed about other things (changes in routine, elevators, uncertainty, eating the wrong food, etc.), Pamela had stopped fretting over pencil and paper because we no longer forced her to do the impossible. That particular trigger was starting to lose its power on her.
“But the only way to secure this pause is to introduce some new habit as attractive to the child as is the wrong habit you set yourself to cure.”—Some knowledgeable friends convinced me that the best way forward is to step backward. Clearly, Pamela wasn’t ready to write. She needed to develop pre-writing skills first: hand preference, bilateral coordination, crossing the midline, finger strength, and control. Instead of focusing on pencil and paper, we did many physical activities to work on her weaknesses, which I blogged awhile ago. The only paper task I gave her was something within reach: scribbling with crayon stubs.
“As the bad habit usually arises from the defect of some quality in the child it should not be difficult for the parent who knows his child’s character to introduce the contrary good habit.”—The issue in Pamela’s character was inability to trust adults. Who could blame her? We were clueless about autism, and so were most of the professionals we knew. Through the school of hard knocks, I learned to work where she was developmentally, not where the world thought she should be. That alone cured the habit of frustration! In time, I began to know when to encourage and when to back off by reading her body language and reading everything I could about autism.
“Take a moment of happy confidence between parent and child; introduce, by tale or example, the stimulating idea; get the child’s will with you.”—I was absolutely clueless about how to guide the thoughtlife of an autistic child because she couldn’t express what she was thinking. Fortunately, the year-long sabbatical was long enough that Pamela had stopped despising pencil and paper. I did many things to scaffold her physically in learning to write capital letters, which I blogged awhile ago. Even though, I hadn’t tapped into her imagination, we developed a happy confidence between us. She learned to trust me, and I learned to trust that she was doing her best when I stayed in her zone of proximal development (a tad beyond where she is).
“Do not tell him to do the new thing, but quietly and cheerfully see that he does it on all possible occasions, for weeks if need be, all the time stimulating the new idea, until it takes great hold of the child’s imagination.”—While I still didn’t understand the power of imagination, Steve Burns (of the television show Blues Clues) rescued me. Pamela fell in love with his show and, before long, she was filling pages and pages with clues. Honestly, I couldn’t have thought of a better way to drill her into better handwriting. Drawing clues fired her imagination, and, to her, she was playing, not improving her fine motor skills.
“Watch most carefully against any recurrence of the bad habit.”—We have nearly overcome the habit of frustration. Occasionally, Pamela throws a mild, half-hearted fuss when she doesn’t get her way. The falling-on-the-floor, kicking-and-screaming are a thing of the past. Curing this bad habit took years and years of removing triggers one by one, working with Pamela where she was, helping her learn to express herself, and respecting her as a person.
“Should the old fault recur, do not condone it. Let the punishment, chiefly the sense of your estrangement, be acutely felt.”—This step is quite tricky when guiding a person with autism. Six years ago, this advice would have utterly failed. Relationship Development Intervention helped us guide Pamela in her flexible thinking and ability to form relationships with people. She still has long way to go, but she can now read my body language and facial expression. She can process when I am upset and when I am distancing myself from her because she has crossed a line.
Even better, Pamela knows how to do things that make me laugh! Yesterday, she walked into the television room and announced, “It’s Saint Patrick’s Day. I’m drinking beer.” She had a glass of root beer.
Later in the day, I was rehearsing for something I have to sing on Monday. I usually record it on my computer, so I can polish up the rough spots. Pamela wanted to get my attention, and she did as you can see in the pictures below.
Pamela Makes Faces to Get My Attention
She Has My Full Attention
She Starts Cracking Up Too
Pamela Sits on the Couch and Laughs