Thursday, February 25, 2010

Holy Helicopters!

People who teach children with autism often get swept up into the mentality of building up discrete skills and executing them with rapid-fire precision. Like all of us, we are more than machines seeking to be more efficient. We crave sharing and understanding. If we are not careful, our day can be come a mindless, robotic performance of what is on our daily to-do list, right down to the RDI objective du jour. Today's delivery of meals of wheels spotlighted for me the joy of seeking meaning and connections.

In November 2008 when we started delivering meals, Pamela's role was to man the ice chest, while David and I married the hot tray with the cold food and carried the meals. When target houses were near each other, David would hit one house while I handled the other. We developed a fast-food system that handed out twenty meals in one hour or less.

When David started school last August, I expanded Pamela's role. After we collected the hot and cold food, she carried it while I scooted ahead to knock, open the screen door, and greet the person in the house. Since Pamela's social skills are more like that of a toddler, we do not split up at adjacent houses, which adds more time. Today, we delivered twenty-eight meals in an hour and twenty minutes. What really matters is that we shared one sweet moment after another that helped me appreciate how far she has come.

After we loaded up the car with ice chests and hot boxes, Pamela tried her verbal stims on me (right now, she talks about history and whether or not Julius Caesar used an oil lamp or a flashlight and works herself up to modern times with who had or did not have the conveniences we know and love). Rather than cold shoulder her desire to talk, I remained warm and responsive by making unexpected comments about what she said rather than playing along with her script. When she said that baby Jesus didn't have a nightlight, I added, "I bet he was a cute baby." She persisted in trying to coax me into her world and I continued to reply in ways that gently disrupted her agenda.

Of all things, a helicopter rescued me from the Pamela Express. We were delivering meals about a block from the hospital. While walking to an apartment, we noticed a blue-and-white, shiny helicopter getting lower and lower. Pamela had never seen one so close to the ground, so her eyes were riveted. I said, "I wonder where the helicopter is going," and she had no idea. After we handed out the five meals for that part of town, I took a one-block detour around the hospital to see where the helicopter had landed.

We saw something completely unexpected! A construction crew had fenced off one of the parking lots and a bulldozer was paving the way for a new foundation. Pamela commented on the mess and I said, "I wonder what they are building." She thought a house until we saw a sign depicted an architect's rendering of an upcoming expansion. Behind the bulldozer, we spotted the helicopter, so I said, "I wonder why it's there." Pamela suggested, "Crashed." I said, "But, the helicopter isn't broken." That triggered a new idea, and she said, "A broken arm." I responded, "You know you're right. Sometimes, helicopters taken injured people to bigger hospitals."

The next three houses went as planned. Then, another opportunity to share joint attention bobbed into view. In the yard next to our delivery, I spotted a dog and a white rooster that was unusually quiet. Rather than prompting Pamela for attention while I held the hot tray, I simply stared at the two animals. I did not say a word. I just stood there, rooted in place. After she grabbed the yogurt and coleslaw, Pamela noticed my rapt attention. She studied the scene to figure out why I was not heading to the house. It required a careful look for some bushes partially blocked our view.

Once she was sharing joint attention, I said something noncommittal like, "Whoa!" Suddenly, Pamela burst out into a giggle and said, "Chasing the rooster. Just like Along Came a Dog," referring to a book about the friendship between a homeless dog and an ostracized little red hen, which we read six years ago! Her connection delighted me for I had not thought about that book in ages.

We delivered three more meals and then hit a snag. The weather was windy, chilly, and, not at all pleasant, even in the sun. We walked up to a house, and I knocked on the door, "Meals on Wheels." Nothing happened. I put my ear to the door and listened for signs of occupation. I did not hear a thing.

Pamela: "I don't hear anything."
Me: "You're right." [Knock, knock, knock.] "MEALS ON WHEELS."
Pamela: "MEALS ON WHEELS . . . It's taking too long."
Me: "It is. I'm waiting a little longer."
Pamela: "It's too cold."
Me: "Brrr . . . it's chilly. Let's go."

That conversation blew me away. First, Pamela initiated each idea, appropriate to the situation. She did not monopolize the conversation, nor did I. Our sentences, all declarative in nature, stayed balanced in length. Pamela connected to her environment and shared what she observed. I just loved how she thoughtfully unfolded her rationale for going back to the warm car. But, that was not the highlight!

We delivered five more meals and made another new discovery. About a year ago, a house near one of our delivery sites burned down. In the months since, we have witnessed the blackened house with the yellow crime scene tape go from abandoned to plowed down and removed to grass slowly creeping over a big, bare spot. Today, we saw construction workers building a brand new house. Both of us gasped and smiled, but did not say a word. Some sweet moments are meant to be felt, not spoken. If you doubt me, try watching this wordless interaction between a toddler and her parents and NOT smile.

Then came the priceless moment I will forever treasure. I knocked on the door, and a chair-bound lady invited us inside. She pointed to the spot where she wanted her meal and, on her lap, was sitting the most marvelous thing in Pamela's mind: a big, old, yellow cassette tape recorder. Of all her electronic devices, Pamela prizes her tape recorder the most. The moment I saw it I knew Pamela would flip. Sure enough, she bolted out of that house to burn off the joy mounting inside her. We call that her victory lap.

When we got into the car, I tried to engage her in conversation because I knew how excited she was. I made a couple of noncommittal comments, but she was too full of rapture to speak! I waited and waited, but she said nothing. I was so glad I had stayed sensitive to the extreme emotion flooding her body and avoided bullying her into talking. Unexpectedly and on her timetable, Pamela blurted out her thoughts.

Pamela: "Did you see that?"
Me: "We saw great things."
Pamela: "Swell."
Me: "The rooster was swell, too."
Pamela: "A tape recorder!"
Me: "And we saw a helicopter."
Pamela: "New house."

In that short conversation, we reviewed the discoveries made in what could have been a routine delivery.

If this post sounds like fluff and cotton candy to you, read on. A new study by the University of Miami shows that some parenting styles foster the development of language in autistic children. Researchers found a connection between "sensitive parenting" in eighteen-month-old children at risk of developing autism and greater expressive language growth by age two to three years. They defined "sensitive" as the following:
  • Warm communication
  • Responsiveness to the child’s needs
  • Respect for his or her emerging independence
  • Positive regard for the child
  • Maternal structuring (the way in which a mother engages and teaches her child about the environment through declarative language)
That sounds a lot like RDI, now doesn't it?


Anonymous said...

Wonderful! How amazing that you are able to share so much together. Adapting to the environment, no agenda, but wonderful opportunities. Jen

Stephanie said...

It sounds a LOT like RDI. I love reading about the way Pamela is blossoming. She is making so many connections. And I grinned ear-to-ear when I read that she remembered a novel from six years ago! I remember reading that book to Sarah and James.

Sonya Shafer said...

Oh, what precious moments! Anything but fluff and cotton candy! Those interactions are milestones!

Penny said...

I know how you are rejoicing at the new levels of interaction! We're experiencing that too - it's exciting. The folks who say the developmental window slams shut when children turn 6 are wrong, and Pamela is proof of that!

Laura DeAngelo said...

Wow, what an awesome experience and what a wonderful blog! I'll definitely share!

walking said...

Remediation can happen at any age, and it does not require drilling, prompting, and pushing. I think we need a study that focuses on quantifiable things to spotlight the quality of these interactions: balanced communication, connections to the environment or related thoughts, the number of steps in the give and take, etc. Pamela could speak in sentences somewhat four years ago, but they were all on topics unrelated to what we were doing or thinking and mainly about her enthusiasms (Disney movies, calendar, etc.). She still falls into that, but she is able to break out of it gently and with respect for her personhood.

Stephanie, that is a wonderful book especially with all of the bullying issues going on right now.