Raising my son involves a lot of guessing due to his different ability to communicate. A lot of his communication comes from his body language. His facial expression, his behavior, both physically and verbally, are often much more telling than his words. A lot of his words are still very echolalic. Lately, he’s had a runny nose which sets him back in communication. He’s taken to shouting out the word “whistle” when the snot is about to run down his face, which is his cry to have me wipe it (which he then fights).
Sometimes, to communicate, I give him multiple choice questions. Often he just repeats the last thing he hears. So, to figure out where he’s coming from, I have to repeat, switching it up a bit to seek consistency for confirmation.
Communication is often in code. “Colors! Numbers! Shapes!” means he is soothing himself from anxiety or fear. If he yells “train”, he is in pain. If he yells “fire truck”, he is mad at having to wait his turn. If he sing-songs, “Money truck, ice cream truck, dump truck, mommy truck,” that means something is stuck and he wants me to unstick it.
Yes, I do give him appropriate language and ignore the inappropriate. He understands and will comply with the “appropriate” if he is not distressed. He will still fall back on the inappropriate in intense or troubled times. When he plants his face into his iPad and is bleeding, he’s gonna yell “TRAIN!” no matter if I coach him to yell “OW!” or “ouch”. Trust me, coaching him about “appropriate language” in those moments is usually the furthest thing from my mind.
So with all the communication impediments, story telling both expressively and receptively, is a challenge, to put it mildly. After coming to the epiphany that my son is NOT able to tell a story, I started working on ways to help him. We have started reading his books and discussing them before bed. I bought reading comprehension workbooks. I discussed the problem and the reading comprehension books at a weekly ABA meeting. I was feeling excited and hopeful.
I never know how to read the reaction of the ABA directors to my suggestions. This time, there was hesitation. I didn’t get a direct answer. Not the first time. To me, it always means that they do not like my idea. They told me they want him to feel encouraged about the program. Obviously, they did not believe this workbook would do that. But this effort is not about me, it’s about helping the little guy. So, I listened to the brainstorming and let them pursue their own plan. At the end of the day, I was going to use those books on my own.
The ABA providers opted to start a program of comprehension involving orally tell him a short story. Visuals of a person, place and event accompany the story. Tootles has to pick three correct photos from six after hearing the whole story. Currently, he’s doing very well. Here’s an example:
Once upon a time, a firefighter went to Nordstrom and played with cars. The end.
Pretty riveting stuff, eh? Tootles then puts the three photos together and retells the story. He totally gets it. The stories will get longer as the program progresses.
Meanwhile, at home, I introduced the reading comprehension book. Guess what? He loves it. The first few stories have captured his attention as the subjects have been ice cream, the bus and trains. He does not understand questions about sequencing but we work them together and he gets fill in the blanks and multiple choice questions about the topic. This is what that looks like:
Now, for the last couple of weeks leading up to Easter, when this whole comprehension issue started, we’ve simultaneously been undergoing his seasonal change of obsessions. As Spring tries to get here in Northern California, through heavy rainstorms, my son remembers which toys he played with last year at this time, and which shows he watched. So, in his different communicative way, he has transitioned his interest from Cars 2 and remote control cars to toy dinosaurs and an episode of Spongebob called “Chocolate with Nuts.”
In this episode, Spongebob and Patrick sell chocolate bars to become rich entrepreneurs so they can buy things. This year, my son has asked me why they are selling chocolate. This year, he asked me about the blue fish and a really old “mom” fish in a wheelchair. New questions. New echolalic requests. Same old show.
And then, yesterday, he put together some old interests with his new found story telling talent, and told me a story, unsolicited. It was completely independent. It went on for quite some time. Once I was able to close my open-mouthed surprise, I asked him to repeat it for posterity. This is what I got:
Garrison Keillor, look out. There’s a new storyteller in town!
And the moral of this story? Never stop hoping, never stop praising, and whatever else, never underestimate your autistic child. He will always prove you wrong.