This week I had the priviledge to watch The Horse Boy which is a wonderful documentary by Rupert Isaacson. Rupert and his wife Kristin are parents to Rowan, a little boy who has autism and they were having a lot of problems with his behaviour. Rowan was not toilet trained and was exhibiting tantrums on a daily basis and Rupert and Kristin were at a loss to know what to do. Rupert had a ranch and was an experienced horseman and Rowan showed a love for animals, so Rupert put Rowan on a horse and the reaction was immediate. Rowan immediately responded and laid across the horse and it was from this moment an idea was born.
So, in the summer of 2007, Rupert and Kristin took Rowan to Mongolia, journeying on horseback from healer to healer, shaman to shaman, across the wide Steppe, and up into the forests of Siberia and what occurred was extraordinary. Rowan was toilet trained and much of his anxiety and tantrums dissipated. Is Rown still autistic? Yes, but now he is much more functional.
What I loved about this movie, was not so much the journey and Rowan's behaviour improvements, but it was the parents and their journey that profoundly made a difference to their lives. Rupert stated, "I am a better father because my son has Autism....it forced me to pay attention to him and what he needed". What an amazing statement.....a child having autism caused this parent to pay attention to his son....and understand and know his child more. I so get this statement. While I do not have a child with autism, I am a teacher of these children and autism has caused me to be a much better teacher than I have ever been in 25 years. I too am forced to pay attention to my students and search and discover what it is they need. I must look outside the square to teach these students and first and foremost, I have to take myself to their world, live their world and truly connect. I've said this before, but it is a complete myth that children with autism are anti-social, or don't want human contact; what they don't want is people in their world who are not real with them. They want and need to know that you genuinely want to know them and understand and appreciate them and if they for one minute think that you have any kind of aversion to their 'autism', then they will completely reject you.
I believe we need to connect with children's passions and specialities and use these interests to work with them and teach them. We can't take away their idiosyncracies, or behaviours because we don't understand why children with autism display these behaviours. It is important to 'get' it and as a way of achieving this knowledge, I talk to my students and ask them why they do certain things. One of my students flaps his hands by the side of his head while he is working in the classroom. I asked him why he did this and without hesitation he told me it helped him to think. Another student rocks her head in a circular motion and again I asked her why she did this and she said that it felt good and that she can hear a lovely sound. Having this knowledge, why would I try to stop these behaviours just because it either looks strange, or is not so-called "normal" behaviour if this behaviour helps these students to think, learn and minimise anxiety?
It is also extremely important to understand "negative" behaviours like the tantrums. All behaviour tells us something. Children don't throw a tantrum just because they can; they throw a tantrum because it is their way of expression and gaining our attention. Sure, it is frustrating, confusing and we don't always understand it, but if you have a car that is making a strange noise, you don't ignore that noise do you? You look under the hood, into the motor, gears etc and try to find the reason for the noise; it is the same with tantrums. While I don't necessarily like to compare children's behaviour to some inanimate object, the principal however is the same....we have to go under the surface, take the time to investigate, survey the whole picture and more often than not we will find the answer.
One example, was a student I had a number of years ago, let's call him James. James rarely spoke and could not convey what he needed. We used to go swimming once a week and James loved swimming. One week, we could not go because something had gone wrong at the pool and they had to cancel. James was not happy but by the end of the day he seemed like he was ok. The following week, James got off the bus screaming and was about to have a full blown tantrum and no-one could work out what the problem was. When he came into the classroom, I tried everything. Are you hungry? Do you need a drink? Do you feel sick? He was looking at me pleadingly, tears falling down his face and I stopped asking questions and just connected and eventually it occurred to me that it was swimming day and James was concerned we may not be going swimming again. I quickly grabbed his bathers and took him to the bathroom so he could change and the tantrum stopped. He just needed to know that swimming was not going to get cancelled again.
Going back to "The Horse Boy", a trip across Siberia is obviously not the solution for everyone and it was a unique journey for this family which taught them enormously about their child, autism, but more importantly about themselves as people and parents. Likewise, being a teacher of children with autism for me is like a world, wide adventure; daily I trek across unknown territory; take huge leaps off cliffs not knowing how high up I am; dive into unexplored waters reaching into the depths for treasure; and take myself out of the comfort zone of my own country. I'm so lucky, blessed and priviledged to be a teacher to these kids; every day is a joy when a student does or says something that completely lightens up my day; most of all, I grow extensively as a teacher, mother and human being as I am forced to look beyond the labels and connect to the soul within; but what's more important is that these kids look beyond me and connect to my soul. These leads me finally to tell you about another student, Liam, completely uncommunicative, doesn't like to look in your eyes and generally avoids connection has recently taken to doing something quite exquisite. When I am on yard duty, he takes my hand, walks me to the bench, motions for me to sit down, he then climbs on top of me, hugs me and kisses me tenderly on my cheek and then quickly jumps off and goes back to his other behaviours. Yes, this is indeed an exquisite moment of connection and appeciation for each other's soul and it touches me deeply. Thank you Liam!
http://www.horseboymovie.com/ Rupert Isaacson
I just watched a brilliant documentary by HBO called "Autism: the Musical". I will put the link on the site soon so you can all check it out. What a complete breathe of fresh air.
A few comments I have....parents really want their children to be accepted and included in the world and truth is we must go to their world first before we can integrate these children into ours. If you can imagine, it is a little like visiting a foreign country. If you were to do that, you wouldn't insist that the country's people and customs immediately adjust to yours; indeed we have to find a way to adjust, speak the language and integrate into the culture in a functional way. Autism is like another culture, a different way of functioning or orientating within the world and it is up to us to understand how this world operates so that we might be better able to assist these children to adjust.
I liken the experience of autism to the experience of a 3D film....in their world colours pop out; shapes and items pop out; noises are accentuated; and smells are more intense....our environment is often not set up for children with autism. There is so much "stuff" around us that it is often a sensory minefield for these kids. We don't realise it but all this stuff, noises and our environment crowds us and children with autism make us aware that the world has indeed become a sensorily overloaded environment. Just go to a supermarket, or a shopping centre and it is so noisy where, even I often have difficulty with the noise, clutter and bombardment of advertising and selling hooks. The children remind us that the world is no longer a place of quiet and peace...and it is at their insistence that they push us to create a space for them that is more manageable.
When did we forget to sit in silence? When did we start to need so much stuff? Autism and those who have autism are simplistic in its nature; there is a no fuss; no bullshit attitude to these kids and people. Looking from this perspective, you can see how much they have to teach us?
So, when I take myself to the space of a child with autism, I find myself sitting in a space of quiet, of reflection, of intuition and of connection and I believe this is part of the message of connection that autism provides. It's a beautiful, serene and 'real' space to connect from and it strikes me that one of the biggest myths of autism is that they are socially disconnected. If anything they cause us to be more connected but in a real way; they just won't connect with us if we are not real. Remember the song..."even in the quietest moments" by Supertramp...the words go like this:
Even in the quietest moments
I wish I knew what I had to do
And even though the sun is shining
Well I feel the rain...here it comes again, dear
And even when you showed me
My heart was out of tune
For there's a shadow of doubt that't not letting me find you too soon
The music that you gave me
The language of my soul
Ohh Lord I want to be with you.
Won't you let me come in from the cold?
And even though the stars are listening
And the ocean's deep, I just go to sleep
And then I create a silent movie
You become the star, is that what you are, dear?
Your whisper tells a secret
Your laughter brings me joy
And a wonder of feeling I'm nature's own little boy....
And even when the song is over
Where have I been....was it just a dream?
And though your door is always open
Where do I begin....may I please come in, dear?
Autism and the child with autism...asks us "may I please come in, dear?" Will you understand me? Will you connect to me in a way I understand?
Will you come to my world and play? And when you do, what a wonder you'll discover and maybe, just maybe you'll learn more about yourself than you ever knew.
I'm heading towards my 50th birthday and I am so excited to be here. I find myself catapulted into another world that demands a new paradigm. Families of children with autism are suffering as they feel a sense of isolation in a world that doesn't connect with their child. I'm increasingly confronted by parents; well intentioned parents with desperation in their eyes. They have brought into this world a child that is different to the expectation of what children are meant to be. They observe the magnificence, the uniqueness and even the gentility of their child, and so want everyone else to see what they see what they see....yet their child doesn't always conform to society; doesn't always perform for the crowds; doesn't fit in to what mainstream expects of them. It is incredibly frustrating and in some way soul destroying.
Yet, if we would - by we I mean all of us, would stop looking at these children through the eyes of what is meant to be normal and open up our scope of vision which in turn blurs the lines of normal; then we would 'see' all children and people for who they are meant to be. What if there is no "normal"? What if "normal" is simply conformity to the 'norms' of what society expects? Autism, and those who live with autism blur the lines of normal all the time; they challenge us to think ouside the box in order to be with them, teach them or nurture them; they extend us beyond ourselves in that we can never function within the so-called "normal" ever again!
I met a wonderful family the other evening. They have a wonderful boy who is 11. He is astute, tender, helpful, smart and he also has autism. He was somewhat suspicious of my presence - naturally, but when I opened up the IPad he slowly and surreptitiously slid next to me - collecting my scent (this boy recognises people by smell) and within a short space of time started working on the IPad quickly picking up on the requirements of the application. His Dad was nearly jumping out of his skin, "see, see", he said. "He picks up so quickly. He is smart". I responded...."you have a very bright boy" and I could see the relief in their faces. Someone could see what they could.
I received a beautiful note from another parent this week, as I am taking long service leave and I will be away for 5 weeks for second term. The note read "thank you for getting our son". It was all I needed to read. I will continue to say this until I no longer need to say it.....we do not need to eliminate autism, we need to get it, understand it, connect with it and then learn from it. When we do so, then we will have the same understanding parents have - that their kids are not wierd, or stupid, or 'not' normal. They just are who they are! Wonderful, unique human beings.
Finally from the mouth of one of my gorgeous students who spoke these words to me this week...."Karina, do you know you are the most perfect teacher for me.....perfect in every way! And if you were any different, like skinnier, then you would just not be you". WOW! This kid sees me....and in that one sentence helped me to to see myself. Thank you Aramis!