Mason believed that an alert child will have more opportunities to see. Opportunities to do what? To serve others, to gain knowledge, to do something. Imagine for a moment what a daunting thing that can be to teach a child in the autism spectrum. First, let's read what my favorite educator wrote,
Alertness.––Many a good man and woman thinks regretfully of the opportunities in life they have let slip through a certain physical inertness. They missed the chance of doing some little service, or some piece of courtesy, because they did not see in time. It is well to bring up children to think it is rather a sad failure if they miss a chance of going a message, opening a door, carrying a parcel, any small act of service that presents itself. They should be taught to be equally alert to seize opportunities of getting knowledge; it is the nature of children to regard each grown-up person they meet as a fount of knowledge on some particular subject; let their training keep up the habit of eager inquiry. Success in life depends largely upon the cultivation of alertness to seize opportunities, and this is largely a physical habit. We all know how opportunity is imaged––a figure flying past so rapidly that there is no means of catching him but, in advance, by the forelock which overhangs his brow (Page 109).I believe the number one thing parents and teachers do to discourage autism spectrum children from thinking is to issue commands. I know we're often in a hurry. Our kids process more slowly. But, if we consistently give them directives, they only have to be alert to us. They don't have to pay attention to their environment, much less persons in their environment.
One child with autism rarely looked at anyone at the beginning of the school year. I suspect that a steady diet of "look at me" prompts was the issue. He didn't realize the benefits of looking at people because others were looking for him. The adults at our school use a different style of communication as described in my friend Di's poster. While we may help students observe, we encourage them to think for themselves.
Slowly, over time, things began to change for him. Because he wasn't paying attention to his classmates, he appeared to cut in line. For a couple of weeks, in our half hour of individualized work, we played follow the leader. The leader took all sorts of unexpected and circuitous routes. He had to be alert to changes in direction even though he knew the expedient way to put lunch bags in the refrigerator. After that, he had no problems in line.
Because we rely more on facial expressions and gestures and not on commands, he has learned to be alert to what we say with our bodies as well as with our words. He has learned to look in the direction of the speaker during group time as well as share joint attention when it's just two people. He is even trying to play with his friends at recess. He is growing in awareness of how his actions affect his friends.
Pamela has come a long way in cultivating the habit of alertness. She enjoys doing little things for me like retrieve the mail every day, bring groceries in the house, and carry our lunch bags into the school. She shops for things and helps us remember all sorts of details. Occasionally, I've completely forgotten about meals on wheels until she reminded me! She still has some lessons to learn. She doesn't always remember to hold the door when I'm behind her.
And, what do I do? Do I prompt her to hold the door? No!
Sometimes, I wait until she realizes she has left me behind.
Sometimes, I cry out, "Hey! What about me?"
Sometimes, I catch her before the door slams and say, "My hands are full."
Sometimes, I knock on the door.
By avoiding the direct command, "Hold the door," I'm requiring her to be alert to my needs and to think for herself what opportunity she can seize. Mason knew that direct commands lessens the ability of a child to remember. In training Johnny to shut the door, she didn't give him a direct command when he forgot. She calls his name pleasantly. She makes a declarative comment, "I said I should try to remind you." The mother of the girl lacing her boots uses eye contact and facial expression to remind her to work more quickly.
Finally, alertness is a two-way street. For us to cultivate alertness in our children, we must cultivate it in ourselves. Once we settle on a new habit to form, we must be watchful of those situations in which the habit can be trained naturally. We must be alert and spring into action with wide and varied responses of indirectly reminding our children of what is not to be forgotten. We are wise if we mind Mason's words about our own habits: "Tact, watchfulness, and persistence are the qualities she must cultivate in herself; and, with these, she will be astonished at the readiness with which the child picks up the new habit" (Page 122).