So now we have a diagnosis, but what that means is a completely different adventure. We left the CDC knowing what was wrong with our little boys, but my mind was now flooded with a torrent of questions. The only guidance we’d received was to enroll them in a special needs preschool and to work with them on their social skills. There were a few things we were supposed to do, especially with Gale, to help with their social interations. One was to strongly encourage eye contact. As simple as that trivial task may sound, Gale just couldn’t do it. You could put your face right up to him and try to stare him in the eyes, but his eyes would bounce all over the place. Never at me. I tried all kinds of things. Telling him to look at me while pointing at my eyes was a common one. Putting my hands on his face like blinders was another. Sometimes he’d appear to be looking at me, but only for a split second before those eyes started bouncing around again. I probably sounded like a crazy lady to most people because during a conversation with him my words would constantly interrupted with “look at me”. It was like talking in code. Another social skill we needed to teach was social interaction. This happens in many phases. The first was simply to acknowledge another person when they said something to you. Simple? Yeah right. This usually went like this: someone walks in the room and says “hi Gale”. Wait a few seconds to let him respond. When he doesn’t, I get to say “Gale, so-and-so just said hi to you, what do you need to do”. Wait a few more seconds for a response. When that doesn’t work, I get to go to Gale, take his hand, direct him towards the person and while waving his hand say, “hi”. You wanna talk about looking like a total idiot? Well, that was me. A lot! And we couldn’t pick and choose the venue for this social teaching. We had to be consistent. Everywhere. There were many times when an unknowing stranger would come up to me and give me advice on this tactic. Usually I was told that I was being an overbearing control-freak and shouldn’t I know better than to let my child learn how to do things on his own? Yeah, thanks for that. Finally, after months and months of “controlling” Gale, he finally started to acknowledge people on his own or at the minimum with us reminding him that someone had just spoken to him. What a great moment when we realized we didn’t have to wave his hand for him anymore!
Because the brains of Autistics are wired differently than the rest of us, the simple act of playing becomes a social lesson. Sure they can play by themselves. They’re already locked in their own little world and what they’re doing is working for them. The problem is that if they don’t learn to interact and play with others, they can’t learn anything else. If you can’t look at the teacher and acknowledge the things she’s teaching, how can you learn? It’s that simple. Whether your disabled or not, playing is the first step along your lifelong road to learning. The fun part? I got to play with toys a lot. Especially Legos. Man do we love Legos! I would sit down with the boys and we’d each have our own pile of toys to play with. And we’d each play our own thing. No mixing toys or taking from another person’s pile or that would cause a giant meltdown. After awhile, when they’d gotten used to playing with someone else sitting by them, we’d each have our own pile of toys, but they were all the same. This phase of playing was where I got to do something and encourage the boys to do the same thing I was doing. Sometimes it worked, sometimes not so good. It was cool when I would see them looking at what another person was doing with their pile and would try to do the same thing without being told what to do. Phase two completed! Now for the fun phase three. Group play. This time we had one big pile of toys and we all had to do something together. You couldn’t take some pieces out of the pile and then go off to do your own thing. Not this time. Now we had to learn to cooperate and build something together. This was a hard one to accomplish. They wanted to do their own thing and they especially didn’t want to have to work with someone else to do it. There were a lot of frustrating play times during this phase and just as many tantrums and meltdowns. When we did build something cool, they would look at it for a minute, sometimes even admire it, but then all that could happen next was to tear it apart and make their own pile to play with. Ugh! Even now, interactive play is a hard one to follow. More often than not, the Legos come out in one big pile and they’ll try to build something together, but ultimately a fight will start out and for everyone’s safety we have to separate the bricks by who owns what and they happily go on to build their own individual designs. What can I say? It’s a long drawn-out work in progress.
Even though we haven’t perfected their social play and interactions, the boys are doing very well in school. We have them in mainstream elementary school and their learning right along with the rest of their peers. Sometimes it takes them longer to grasp a concept, but they’re persistent and they get it. Autistics aren’t dumb or retarded, their brains just move things around differently than ours. Since Gale is more severe than David, most of our experiences are with him. Because we were able to diagnose David at a much earlier age than Gale, we were able to intervene, train, and teach him more quickly than we were with Gale. Another proof that the earlier the intervention and diagnosis the better for the child. David still has some troubles in school, he has a difficult time making and keeping friends, and he’s physically awkward, but unless you spend time with him you really wouldn’t know that he has a disability at all. We’re thrilled with that. Gale, too, is physically awkward and socially disfunctional, but we’ve found a unique situation by living and growing up in a small town. Since both of the boys started school here their classmates haved learned to accept their differences and have even been known to encourage them when they’re faced with a difficulty. Very seldom is there any cruelty shown to them and when there is the other kids step up and protect them. If Gale has a meltdown in class, the kids know that sometimes that just happens with Gale and they continue to move forward encouraging him along the way. On one particular occasion, Gale was having a physical moment when he just couldn’t sit in his chair and ended up flailing around on the floor. Several of his classmates went over to him and tried to talk him down, reminding him that he wanted to have a good day and that being on the floor wouldn’t make that happen. They didn’t make fun of him or chastise him. They accepted him and encouraged him. Eventually he was able to regain control and sat back down in his chair to finish out the school day. What a wonderful example of acceptance and love.
Before we moved to Arco, we lived in Utah. We found a special needs preschool in our school district and enrolled him there. What we didn’t know was that most of the children in this preschool were severely handicapped and/or retarded which was not Gale’s case. Most of the class time was spent sitting on the floor in a circle while the teacher read and the aides held the kids in place. This was when we found out about Gale’s tactile issues. He loved to touch hair. LOVED it! He would seek out the person in the room with the longest hair, sit next to them and spend the entire time stroking that person’s mane. Unfortunately in that class the person with the longest hair was the girl who couldn’t stand to be touched. This of course caused some issues. More for the girl than Gale. When he was touching hair everything else in the world didn’t exist. She couldn’t run away so she was stuck next to him. Screaming at the top of her lungs and he was totally oblivious to her wailing because all that mattered was what he was feeling. They soon learned to make sure he couldn’t sit by her and one of the aides, who rather enjoyed having her hair stroked, would sit by Gale and let him play with her hair as long as he wanted. He really didn’t learn anything socially at that school and it was quite frustrating for us because we were assured that he would learn to write his name and sing the alphabet. Needless to say that didn’t happen.
Because of some crazy events that happened in our lives, we decided it was time to move from our home in Utah and found this place in Idaho. We weren’t sure what to expect from the school system, but all the online research I did made it look like a pretty great place to be. Were we ever right! Gale was enrolled in kindergarten (although we found out that the schools in Idaho would have allowed him another year in preschool for social development) and David was enrolled in preschool. The teacher’s were wonderful! They accepted the boys disabilities and worked hard to help them learn and grow. Gale didn’t progress enough to move on from kindergarten his first year, that extra year in preschool would have been wonderful for him, but he had no problems with doing kindergarten a second time. Boy oh boy what a difference a year can make!