autism,  family,  helps,  learning strategies,  reading,  reading comprehension,  strategies

Calling grandma for backup

June 8, I got my first, real, spontaneous “word picture” from J. It’s a skill we’ve been really working on over the past month (so much so that my mum has been living with us in Fargo for all of June to help us with it).  J and I went out for a run and I asked him where he wanted to go. His first answer? “Back yesterday.” That’s the typical sort of answer I get from J when I ask him a question. 5 word sentence maximum, always vague. Then I rephrased the question. “J, I just can’t see that. You’re going to have to use your words to make a picture of so I can see in my mind where you want to go.”

“Go down Elm to 25th and then turn on Broadway, go up to 32nd and then go to Elm and back,” he said. Without hesitation, stuttering, or scrambling for words. I was floored. I’ve never heard that complete of an answer to any question I’ve asked him in my life. And oddly enough I understood what he meant by “back yesterday.” “Back yesterday” was that exact route we ran yesterday, the exact streets he rattled off, except in the opposite direction.

Back in March, after I finished the Lindamood Bell conference in Minneapolis, I was convinced that if J was going to improve his reading and language comprehension, the Visualizing and Verbalizing program was the way it was going to happen (No, this is not a sponsored post. I get my therapy ideas by parent-word-of-mouth suggestions and ridiculous amounts of research, not by anyone approaching me). The whole program focuses on rewiring the brain to make words into pictures, which I came to realize was something J could not do, and we needed to get J to do it.

There were only two options if we were going to try this method with J. J and I could rent a hotel for 6-8 weeks in Minneapolis while he worked at a Lindamood Bell centre there or we could possibly fly out to Utah (where Steve’s mom lives) and we could live there for 6-8 weeks while he attended the center there. Those were VERY costly options, and Steve and I were seriously considering them. But there were things that had me worried. I didn’t think J could handle 4 hours of intensive reading intervention every day in a place far from home. I wasn’t sure if the tutors could handle the autism behaviours and baggage that come when teaching J. What if we spent all of this money and J refused to even participate at the centre? It was really frustrating because my gut feeling was telling me this could help J a ton but there was a lot of time and financial risk (of J not cooperating) involved.

The other option was for me to do the program with J and enlist help. And so back in March I asked my mum if she would come out for the whole month of June and help me go through the program with J since I had already been trained in the course in Minneapolis. My mom has decades of public school teaching experience. She knows J well. We have the same expectations and discipline strategies. She has a phenomenal ability to look outside of the box and solve learning problems. And she said yes!

So for the last month, my mum and I managed to put in about 4 (non-consecutive) hours worth of Visualizing and Verbalizing with J. It’s been a slow and steady improvement. We are trying to rewire almost 10 years worth of hyperlexia. There are deficits we are discovering along the way that we didn’t know existed because J was able to hide them so well (seriously, he’s got to be pretty smart to make it to this point with the language skills he has finagled). The biggest problem we’ve discovered is J’s vocabulary–J knows words only by definition or function. He really doesn’t have a picture for each word he knows. It doesn’t seem to be a big deal at first, (hey, he knows what the word “is”) but I’ll give you some examples as to why over the long term (and in higher reading levels) this amounts to a big problem:

Take, for instance, the word “fireman.” When I ask J to give me a “picture of a fireman,” he tells me, “he’s someone who puts out fires,” “runs into a burning building” or “saves people.” True, but J can’t tell me, “he wears a fireman’s hat, black or yellow like a helmet, he wears special fireproof clothes that are black and yellow with stripes, he wears big boots and carries a fire hose.” It may not seem like a big deal at first. But what if your sentence read, “The fireman stood on the nightclub stage looking at the women below him. ‘Welcome to ladies’ night!” the fireman said over the loud music, and the women below him screamed and cheered?” (I know it’s a terrible example, but it’s the best on-the-fly example I could think up for this quick little post).

Yes, I know J wouldn’t be reading a scene from a strip club, but it’s one example where the definition of “someone who puts out fires, runs into a burning building, or saves people” doesn’t give you the right “definition” or context for comprehension for the passage. Being able to visualize what a fireman looks like is key to understanding the story–not the definition of a fireman, and this is part of the reason he isn’t understanding language in the way he needs to (he also has the tendency to look at words at a syntax level–compound words, homophones, etc). As humans we construct language by image and sensory detail, rarely by definitions. As a writer, I’m acutely aware of this. I’ve taught this concept in my 1st year writing and creative writing classes at MSUM and NDSU. I never thought I’d be using this concept to teach my autistic son how to read and understand language in this way. I never thought I’d be using fundamental concepts I learned in my MFA degree in creative writing for autism therapy.

Lately I’ve been thinking about short stories and poetry and where imagery is essential to understanding the message. The story of Tandolfo the Great by Richard Bausch is a story about a clown but not really–it’s the story about a man who works as a clown as a side job who really wants to marry a woman who sees him as “just a friend.” (If you haven’t read it, it’s a really great story!). So the picture of a clown is important to the story–not the “definition” of a clown (someone in makeup who makes someone laugh–in fact, the protagonist is a complete failure at being a clown). The poem “Metaphors” by Silvia Plath is full of words like “elephant, house, melon, fat purse, cow.” The entire poem relies on the images these words create, not the literal definitions of these nouns.

Why do a lot of kids on the spectrum struggle with reading comprehension? I’m not sure, but I’d love for someone to do research on it. A theory I’ve come up with this month is that maybe autistic kids struggle forming images full of sensory detail because they struggle with sensory integration–especially as toddlers when they’re acquiring language, specifically nouns, at a rapid pace. While their peers are taking in the sights and sounds around them and associate them with the words they’re learning, kids on the spectrum are often trying to shut out all sensory input when they’re overstimulated–closing their eyes, humming to block out sound, pressing their hands against their ears. I look at the structure word list (a step I go through with J in this reading program) and all of those words–what, size, colour, number, shape, where, movement, mood, background, perspective, when, and sound–and they’re words I know J didn’t internalize and comprehend as he struggled as a toddler to filter all the sensory input around him and associate that to language.

It’s pretty hard to form a picture when you’re blocking out everything you need to make one.

One of the steps in the program is to take all of the information in a sentence (later multiple sentences) and make a complete “picture” with that information. Putting your hand on one of the squares helps you remember to build a picture and “hold” it there. Throughout the paragraph (and later the page) you start accumulating more “pictures” (and squares) until you have the complete story. This has been a super helpful technique for J in helping him remember what he has read and assembling it as a whole idea.

The last 3 weeks have been really intense. I am completely exhausted by the end of the day (my mum is too)–and then we start it all over again. I’m SO glad my mum has been here to help. J was REALLY resistant (as he always is when we introduce something new) to “re-learn” how to read. Making pictures with words is really hard for him. And then we had crazy life things going on at the same time. We had to say good-bye to Fred four days after my mum arrived. A few days later we turned on the backyard hose for the first time this year and realized that a pipe had probably frozen over the winter and burst. We had a crazy rain storm and Steve, my mum, and I scrambled to save those tomato plants I started as seedlings back in February. J developed an ingrown toenail that was kind of dramatic. You know. Life stuff. But we’re trucking through, slow and steady, and already I’m starting to see little differences in how he reads, understands, and learns language.

My mum leaves Tuesday and I’m going to miss her and her help a ton. This reading process is going to take some time but I’m excited to see where this goes. For once in my whole autism parenting life, I feel like I may have expert, training, and expertise in what my son needs. Let’s hope I can just have the patience needed to go with it 😉

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