Archie has always been good a learning nouns. When he was two, and saw his first speech and language therapist she devised a little posting game. We made a postbox out of a shoe box and Archie would post pictures through the slot with me saying the name as he did. This then progressed to him having to choose the correct picture from a selection to post. He loved this game and quickly learned hundreds of nouns in this way (verbs were a different matter).
The one exception to this has been body parts. Head, eyes, mouth, nose, hands, feet, legs and arms were easily mastered, but everything else has been a bit of a struggle. Even now if I ask Archie to show me his chest he’ll point to his back, if I ask to be shown an elbow he might point to his shoulder or his tummy. I suppose heads are more discrete and more obvious that elbows which don’t really have an ending or a beginning, but I have wondered for a while whether there has been something additional causing problems. I have read pretty much everything I can find written by people with non-verbal autism and descriptions of difficulties of being aware of where a body is in space are common. It is well worth reading Autism and the Myth of the Person Alone anyway, but in Lucy Blackman’s chapter, Reflections on Language, she writes: I deduce that in childhood I had real problems in knowing exactly where my connectional limbs and trunk were, where they would move to next, and even more frighteningly, where they had last been positioned. Naoki Higashida in The Reason I Jump says: In my gym class, the teacher tells me to do things like ‘Stretch your arms’ and ‘Bend your knees!’ But I don’t always know what my arms and legs are up to, not exactly. For me, I have no clear sensation of where my arms and legs are attached, or how to make them do what I’m telling them to do. It’s as if my limbs are a mermaid’s rubbery tail. Again in Autism and the Myth of the Person Alone, Naoko says: I could not point at objects for many reasons. The most important reason is that I had very little sensation of my body. So to learn the techniques of moving my right hand needed control over the ball and socket joint of the shoulder and then the hinge joint of my elbow and finally fold the other fingers and keep the point finger out.
These accounts act as a reminder to me that when Archie is struggling to learn vocabulary it may be because he is experiencing the world and his position in it in a way that is completely alien to me.
Many of those currently reading The Reason I Jump may not be aware that Naoki learned to type using a controversial method known as facilitated communication. In common with many of those with severe autism who type independently he needed a period of physical support. He describes the process by which he learned to write and point independently, and why he needed this support in this mini lecture. His is an increasingly common story, and as the word spreads and more people try this form of communication then we are likely to come across others saying the same thing.
The official (and negative) view of faciliated communication can be found here or on Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science blog. My own view is that we shouldn’t be throwing the baby out with the bathwater and the people who now type independently and who have said they needed a period of physical support to get to that stage should not be ignored. They have worked hard to develop their voice and we should be listening to them. There is a balance to be found between providing necessary support and working towards independence. I do believe that working towards increasing independence is important because frankly, many discount a voice that is not fully independent.
I was reading The Reason I Jump at breakfast this morning and this passage jumped out at me: I think the reason why some kids with autism try to get hold of an object by ‘borrowing’ someone else’s hand is that they can’t tell how far they need to extend their own arms to reach the object. They’re not too sure how to actually grab the object either, because we have problems perceiving and gauging distances. This was particularly relevant this morning because an hour earlier this article about Watson Dollar finding a way to communicate in his twenties had popped up on my Facebook newsfeed. It includes the following passage: Watson initially found it easier to grab his mom’s hand and guide her outstretched finger to type words rather than extend his own. He doesn’t do that much anymore but still prefers to clutch her hand while he types with his own finger. A heartwarming video of Watson can be seen here on the USA Today website together which clearly shows his method of clutching his mother’s hand.
In Archie’s case he finds typing difficult, he finds language difficult and he finds literacy difficult. A huge advantage of the Vantage Lite for us is that it’s easy for him to use and he can use it independently. I do automatically tend to demonstrate new words to him hand over hand (I still teach a lot of things hand over hand), but after one or two demonstrations he can access that word independently. This independent use means that he is believed, and with reference to my last post is able to demonstrate competence. As he becomes more able to communicate and as his expressive language develops I fully intend to introduce him to typing via the iPad as well. If he needs some physical support to get going I won’t hesitate to offer it. The photograph below shows some of Archie’s recent writing. Whilst he is not using writing to communicate he can now write his name without support, but it has taken many years of hand over hand practice for him to be able to produce this independently. It would perhaps be more surprising if support was not needed.
Joseph finished primary school this week. Come September he’ll be off to secondary school with 174 people in his year group – more than the total number of pupils in his current school. A time of change, and it has been a week of reflection. We have been lucky with the boys’ schools. Apart from a dodgy few terms when Archie was in mainstream (and to be fair that wasn’t entirely the school’s fault – Archie should never have been there) the boys’ have been in supportive schools who have done their best to help them reach their potential. In Archie’s case that potential seems to be expanding rapidly and I’m not quite sure where we’re going to end up.
Year 6 were given a warm send off. A close group of friends, there were tears when it came to say goodbye and a rather idyllic final barbecue overlooking the sea, with water fights, British bulldog and a swim in a sea pool. The children were given some lovely gifts including a jar of questions each from their class teacher. The note attached to the jar says that the questions are designed to get the children chatting and debating with their friends and family. They range from simple questions such as ‘what is your favourite place in the house?’ (Joseph: the computer room; Louis: the front room because I watch TV in there) to more abstract ones such as ‘if you could have any superpower in the world what would it be and why?’ I’ve put it on the kitchen table to encourage meal time conversation. It’s a thoughtful gift for any family. I thought Joseph might need to be a bit older to appreciate the value of such a gift but he was genuinely delighted and was keen to get started with the questions.
It’s a particularly useful present for our family because Archie often finds these sorts of questions difficult. Most of his conversation is concrete, usually about what he’s doing, or has done and when. I asked him earlier today what his favourite food was and he struggled to answer. Archie eat; Archie like food; eat food tomorrow were the initial answers before he said sweeties. Many of the questions in the jar are great for encouraging Archie to start to understand, think about and answer these more abstract questions, where he has to express a preference rather than provide an absolute right or wrong answer. He did well with ‘what is your favourite room in the house?’ and answered bathroom pretty quickly. He may not understand the concept of superpowers yet but he was included in the conversation and made his own contribution mummy car. A question about whether you would prefer to live on the moon or in the ocean led to a great debate between Joseph and Louis centring mainly on available food. I translated a little for Archie asking him which he preferred, the moon or the sea and he said sea which surprised me a little, maybe he recognises the effect the full moon has on him! Maybe he just wants to go surfing again, life has intervened and we haven’t been for a while.
While many of the questions may be a little out of reach for Archie at the moment, through being asked to contribute and through being part of the conversation I expect him to find them gradually easier to answer. Language cannot be learned passively, it is only through using language that you learn to wield it. These mealtime conversations provide an opportunity for Archie to take part in describing preferences and in debating without the attention being solely on him. He can hear other people being asked the same questions and listen to their answers. He can begin to understand that we are interested in his answers as well as his brothers’ and he can learn that questions aren’t always asked as part of an assessment and aren’t always designed to trip you up and reveal what you don’t know. It is a way in which we can show that we are assuming competence, something which Naoki writes about in The Reason I Jump. Incidentally, slightly off topic but this is a subject close to my heart and I co-authored a book chapter published this month on the issue of competence (Laughter and Competence: Children with Severe Autism Using Laughter to Joke and Tease in Studies of Laughter in Interaction).
Whilst I am aware that Archie doesn’t (yet) have the means to always express himself in a way that is easily understandable and that he sometimes needs help interpreting questions I can see the question jar becoming an important family tradition. I am already hatching a plan to get everyone to contribute new questions when we’ve worked our way through the originals. It is interesting for all of us to think about our answers and explain or defend them. To have Archie able to take part in this is wonderful. From expensive high tech talkers to simple jars of questions other people’s gifts are having a large impact on our lives.
A couple of further links for those interested in Naoki Higashida after my last post.
(1) An article in today’s Guardian by David Mitchell: Learning to live with my son’s autism. Although, as always in these articles there are some areas where my view differs a little it’s a powerful piece of writing, with of course many shared moments. This is something fairly typical, when meeting parents of children with special needs you find that although you might be virtual strangers your lives have so many shared moments you’re practically family.
(2) A link to video about Naoki Higashida by the Facilitated Communication Institute of Syracuse University, I write so I am alive. (You need to scroll down, although they’re all worth watching). Thank you Lisa from Aut2Communicate for the link. On watching the video at first I thought that Naoki was very much more organised than Archie, for example he was catching a ball and appeared calm and pretty much in control of his actions. Then Naoki started running and jumping, and hitting and biting himself and he looked very much more like Archie. Something I have noticed very recently is that as Archie progresses with the talker, and routinely produces longer sentences he is also becoming a little more organised. He can copy out words now, and he will sit at the table and concentrate on his homework (once we’ve managed to drag him away form his iPad). For a while now I’ve felt that one of Archie’s greatest problems has been his lack of oganisation and his slavery to involuntary movement and actions. It’s hard to complete a thought if it is always interrupted by the need to run and jump. It will be interesting to see how his emerging calmness and ability to concentrate develops. I am hopeful that it will continue to improve and lead us to exciting new places.
Just a quick link really for this post, from the Speak for Yourself blog. They make the point that typical children are given at least 2 years before they’re expected to combine words, whereas children given AAC devices are often expected to produce sentence quickly. They then go on to talk about it being better to have to combine words yourself rather than use pre-programmed phrases (I agree with their comments on the whole btw, even if the occasional pre-programmed phrase does no harm, on the whole I think it is better to learn to produce those phrases from single words).
I wanted to add to this my observation that Archie really did need some time just using his device at a single word level. He has explored the device himself, he is now very familiar with it & with that familiarity he has begun to produce more complicated phrases. I’ve been struck by how typical his language development with the device has been, when compared to the speech development of his two younger brothers. He went from single words to comfortably combining two words to longer phrases – now they can be very long indeed. He’s also made corrections, so whereas ‘not’ always used to appear at the end of a sentence it’s now, more often than not, found in the correct place. None of this has been achieved with intensive therapy, his development has taken a very natural course – the vantage lite just providing him with the voice to do that.
Archie’s been busy with the iPad camera this week. I’ve been a favourite subject (slightly traumatic, I prefer to be behind the camera)
There are times when the difference the talker has made to Archie’s life hits me between the eyes, this week has been one of those weeks. The first moment was when my Mum phoned. Archie grabbed the phone from me and said “Friday granny sweets Joseph Louis school”. He was reminding my mum that Friday is tuck shop day at Joseph and Louis’ school and he wanted some sweets. What he said wasn’t all that surprising – but the fact he was having a telephone conversation was nothing short of incredible.
The second was today. Archie was given a role on the school council and formed part of an interview panel at school interviewing candidates for (I presume) teaching jobs. No silly questions about dinner parties with anyone living or dead, he just wanted to know favourite foods. That he can take part in interviews these days is somewhere beyond incredible. It shows in simple terms how much the talker has given him.
There’s a line in Priscilla Queen of the Desert (well the musical version anyway) where Tick introduces his son to Bernadette with a ‘SURPRIIIIISE’ and Bernadette falls over. It’s funny and it’s been replaying in my head this week quite a bit.
First time was when I asked Archie his address. And he told me. His address isn’t stored as a phrase, he had to find each word separately, which he did without difficulty. He knew his house number as well.
Next surprise was when I sat down with him to read bloody Biff and Chip (I clearly celebrated too early when Louis finished Biff and Chip a few years ago) with him this week. I decided to point to a few words to see if he could read them by finding them on the talker. Mum, Joe, dinner, carrot, eat, and, home, finished were no problem at all. He found them without hesitation. After one page he’d had enough of reading, but still I was impressed. This was done with a typical teenage reluctance to engage in homework (one eye on the iPad).
I thought it time to update with a couple of short videos, these were taken today. Notice how he’s now playing whole phrases after he’s found each word. Also ‘not’ seems to have moved into the correct position in the sentence. And there’s a little joke where he says yes to something he knows he isn’t getting. Notice as well how at ease he is producing these longer sentences.
Apologies there’s been a bit of a break. We’ve all been ill in turn, which always puts me behind with work and everything else slips in the catch up. Actually the being-ill was interesting post talker. Archie developed an eye infection, which then spread into his cheek. It was pretty grim. I found the child who has never worn a plaster in his life trying to stick plasters over his eyes and raiding the freezer for ice. We eventually managed to get him seen at the eye infirmary (after he told me eye different and eye bad and eye hurt). I took Joseph with me to help out, (never having tried to take Archie to a hospital appointment alone before), but he wasn’t really needed. The days of trying to get behind every closed door may be over. Archie was extremely good during the examination as well, resting his chin on the contraption that allowed the doctor to look into his eyes. Very different from our journey to x-ray four or five years ago where we had 5 people trying to hold him down for a shot of his suspected broken ankle (we never did manage to get the necessary shot). This time Archie only became noisy when he heard the doctor say he needed to stay off school. Staying off school doesn’t really go down very well.
We haven’t been surfing, we’ve been too ill or it’s been too cold and Archie hasn’t been keen. Until today really when he told me Harry yes surfing so I hope Harry’s back is better. I’ll start tracking the forecast again, if the temperature reaches 10 °C I’ll book us in. We have been dog walking a lot. Lucky Chewbacca.
I have started to try and target some language on the talker. I have been pushing a bit to try and get an understanding of Archie’s comprehension. So today for example while on the beach I asked whether today was ‘colder’ or ‘hotter’ than yesterday (I’m not sure whether ‘warmer’ is understood yet) and Archie was able to tell me that it was hotter (it was, by some distance). I have been keeping these instances very much grounded in what we are doing at the time, Archie still doesn’t really like to do work with me.
One very special moment today. Archie has been insisting on the same CD for weeks in the car, and it’s been beginning to drive me mad, (Variations for anyone interested) so today I insisted on playing music from my phone. This is a slightly eclectic mix that includes favourite tracks of mine and the kids, including ‘Revenge’, a bizarre Minecraft parody of Usher’s DJ got us falling in love again. As the song started playing Archie joined in with some gusto – and we sang along to various tracks the rest of the way to Bigbury. Archie can actually sing well and in key, he just rarely does, but today he was up for it. We arrived at the beach beaming – nothing like a belting sing-song to raise the mood.
For the first ten years of Archie’s life I probably made pretty much every decision for him. Until he was about 5 he had really no concept of having a choice and would treat every suggestion as a command. To complicate matters further it took until he was about 10 before he had a functional yes and no. By this I mean it took that long until he had a way to communicate yes and no and an understanding of the concept of yes and no, in other words an understanding of what yes and no actually means. It’s hard to imagine not understanding the words, but they’re abstract and for a long time Archie didn’t. The upshot of this was that we couldn’t have simple ‘do you want to go to the park’ type conversations because Archie had no way of saying yes, or indeed no.
Gradually we developed a simple way of offering choices; ‘would you like this or this – using a picture or symbol to offer the choice’. If Archie wanted neither option then we would start a guessing game. It was slow, frustrating and often resulted in no resolution. Once an understanding of yes and no developed it made running through options easier but we were still limited to me having to think of various options while hoping to stumble on an acceptable one. Archie’s choices were limited to my imagination and he struggled to communicate a choice without me first offering it.
The talker has made all this much easier, and this improved communication has resulted in less frustration and Archie being able to have more agency over his life. We had a fine example of this this week. I booked a surf for today as soon as I realised that Archie had a non-pupil day at school. It seemed ideal, his brothers would be at school and it would occupy the first day of the half term. Except last weekend he went down with a really grotty cold. He’s been insisting on going to school but has been coughing and spluttering all week and really didn’t seem to be 100% fit to be dunked in the sea in February. In the past this would have been problematic. If I had said something was happening it had to happen, or a massive meltdown would result. There was no way to negotiate an alternative or even explore what Archie actually wanted to happen. I had to try and guess. And, as might be expected, frequently guessed wrong. The talker has made all this easy. By Wednesday when he was still spluttering everywhere I reminded him he was booked in to surf on Friday, but asked him whether he wanted to go given his cold. Different day came the reply. I was able to check ‘do you want to surf on Friday?’ no. So I asked when. Sunday. Okay Sunday, but he clarified further. Downham Saturday surfing Sunday.He wants to surf the Sunday after he’s been to respite on the Saturday. And all decided without a meltdown or me having to tie myself in knots trying to guess what he might want to happen. The day pinpointed all I have to do now is keep an eye on the surf forecast. If it’s forecast to be flat we’ll use the talker to renegotiate.
The sun showed its face briefly this week, and Archie appeared talker in hand, very excited; washing help. I’ll admit I was confused, and at first thought that maybe he had spilt something. Upstairs. Nope I was still confused. A 1, 2followed by a jabbing point out the window clarified it for me, Archie was telling me that our next door neighbours had hung their washing out on the roof terrace (1,2 representing the 2nd floor).
I was faster today when he appeared with a pegs upstairs. And he was delighted, and joined me by the roof terrace door to watch the neighbour’s sheets, grinning from ear to ear. I have always struggled to understand the obsession with washing lines, but it’s been there for many years.
Slightly more conventionally Archie seems to have suddenly turned very teenage in his interests, although maybe a couple of decades out of date. After hearing a CD in the car he has been playing The Stone Roses pretty much non-stop. Yesterday I found him playing Waterfall on the iPad and iPod simultaneously.