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