Friday, June 15, 2012

A whack in the face with context...

Billy and I have had a good week. Good weeks are good.

Some weeks on this homeschooling journey are like trying to paint a bright colourful picture with frog spawn. We start each day with fresh resolve, and it somehow ends up in a mess of half filled-in worksheets and flickering apps. There are many variables that lead to this situation - seizures, surprise dog barking episodes, an intense need to build and re-build Island of Sodor scenarios, a head full of advertising jingles and logos...

But some weeks, like this one, we somehow manage to hit a stride and it feels good (at least to this often guilt ridden Mummy).

Billy managed some excellent feats of mental arithmetic (thanks to drilling through a new Maths app, and some great teacher supplied worksheets). He wrote some amazing journals, and showed some really astute reading comprehension. He is spontaneously picking up academic work to fill time (which has never, ever happened before).

And, he taught me something very, very interesting this week.

Billy reads well. He picked it up fairly easily (in contrast to Maths, which may as well be advanced semantic interpretation of 16th century Russian folk dancing, as it is just as accessible to him). I was thrilled with Billy's natural leaning towards literacy, for two reasons. One - pure vanity: being a writer, I was proud to think I had possibly passed on some writer-y genes. The other reason is that the academic successes have been few and far between for him. He loves information, but active aware learning is not his favourite thing. It ranks somewhere near dentist visits and broccoli.

Because we do Distance Education, and his teacher is (by her admission) not comprehensively familiar with autism, we make a lot of videos and send them to her. These videos are of Billy doing various activities, sharing news and reading aloud. Often, his reading, despite his competency, is monotone and looks (to the uninitiated) like he is really struggling to comprehend.

This week, he's been reading about cats. He noticed some of the material was similar to things he had seen on a particular National Geographic kid's series. So, I said to him, kind of as a throwaway... 'Why don't you read this story like Spin (the Narrator, voiced by Dudley Moore), like you are sharing the story with someone.'


Billy went from monotone to multi-tone (if that's not a word, it should be). He lit up, he shared the illustrations with the camera, he speculated about what was happening next. He demonstrated his ability. Charmingly. Disarmingly. Joyfully.

If the mood takes you, here's the link.

It makes me think, a lot, about how I teach him.

Mix Billy with autism and anxiety and processing issues and sensory issues and motor planning issues and eight year old boy issues, and it's obvious there's a lot competing with his ability to successfully complete an arbitrary academic task. This made his journey at school particularly counter-productive. It has been a bit of a challenge for us learning at home too, but we have the time and space to play around until he finds a way in to most tasks.

This week's discovery opens up a world of possibilities.

It's like, if we take the pressure off him 'doing' the task, and put the focus on something past the rudiments of the task (being a Narrator, in this case) the stress level drops. When the stress level drops, the enjoyment level rises. The whimsy arrives. The fun begins.

To be honest, we've noticed this before in his life. I really should have picked this up without the aid of the YouTube anvil in my face.

It's autism 101.

First/Then. You want to endlessly play Thomas? No worries. First bath, then Thomas. You want the iPad surgically attached to your lap. First dinner, the  iPad. Focus on the 'then', suck up (de-emphasise) the 'first'.

The other 'duh' moment is in the context. He was no longer reading, he was imitating. He was improvising. He was performing. While he focused on the imitation, using the book as his material, he didn't need to be stressed about the reading part.

I love how much sharing is going on in the video. We never, ever thought we would see this much sharing. He is genuinely keen to see my reaction, thrilled to be offering something new with every page turn. He's come a long way from the life-avoiding sand-sifting of the past years. We have worked hard to not force him to change, calming his life down, hoping that just this would emerge from his own being.

He continues to thrill us with his capacity. He gets there in his own time, and in his own way. But he gets there - to his own 'there', every single time.

Speaking of there...

Billy's favourite place in Sydney is Taronga Zoo. He has been going there, at least weekly, since he was under two years old. On his first trip, the combination of chip-loving seagulls and noisy children meant we all had a shocker of a time. But the animals drew him back. Again and again and again. He knows the animals like they are his family. He knows everything about every resident of every enclosure. In fact, the first time we knew he had a photographic memory was the second time he entered the Reptile House at Taronga Zoo. He had been there once, and us being newbie autism parents, we had named every animal in a bright, sing-songy voice for him. Flash forward to the second trip,  I videoed him (and the incredulous other patrons) as he named every single creature. Correctly and in order. And some of those fellas have long, complex names.

There's a Nocturnal House at Taronga Zoo. It contains some of Billy's favourite animals (Australian marsupials) and it is dark. Dark is handleable, but the ambient soundtrack (howling wolves and hooting owls) is categorically not. So, for the last six years or so, we have stayed out of the Nocturnal House.

It has been a constant source of sadness and frustration to Billy. He has come up with excellent solutions (constructing a nocturnal house out of toys and cardboard boxes, drawing a nocturnal house and last month - the genius stroke, sending Daddy into the nocturnal house with a video camera.

But he's still nursing a frustrating unrequited Nocturnal House love.

A couple of weeks ago, after some searching for the best tactic, we contacted the zoo. We explained Billy's desire, and his condition, and the next thing we knew, we had an email from the relevant keeper (Rob, who we now love), explaining that the soundtrack could be turned off for a day, just for him.

Next Thursday, we will enter the Nocturnal House for the first time since Billy was in a stroller and I was too insensitive to know he was apoplectic with pain and anxiety.

I cannot thank the staff of Taronga Zoo enough for this. No words can explain how important this is to Billy. I know I sound like some crazy over-protective parent trying to make people do special things for my child. I know the complexities of autism are difficult for the uninitiated to take in. I know that this gesture reinforces the message we try to give Billy every moment of every day - that thinking and acting outside of the box should not be threatening or strange, it's what life is about.

As I said, it's been a good week. I carry on a lot when we have bad times, so I'm happy to be happy about the happy times.

Marsupials, cat books and video cameras. The stuff good weeks are made of.

Gosh, my life has changed.


Anna V said...

That actually made me cry. People can be so awesome when we give them the chance (so OK they can also be arseholes when we give them the chance...)

Wendy said...

Taronga Zoo, I love you. I may never come there, or hear the word again, but as for right now, Taronga is the most lovely thing on the planet!