Language is Where You Look For It

03/08/2009

I am easily fascinated.

Much of my life is a process of serial intense attention to one thing, immediately followed by something else. At times it seems to be a good thing, like when I am fascinated by the task I’m supposed to be doing and pay intense attention to it. At other times my fascination is a deep preoccupation with the flight of a bumble bee or the pattern on the back of a snake.

Some fascinations are singular and very brief, others are recurring and long-lasting.

Autism is one of the long-term recurring fascinations. Its particularly captivating because of all that we know we don’t know about it. I’m intrigued by the variety of ways it affects people who have it.

I recently chatted with the mother of a young woman who has autism and who, as a child, would only communicate through art. Of course, at the beginning, it was not at all clear that the girl was trying to communicate or what she might be trying to say, but this girl is particularly bright and was able to make her pictorial messages more explicit.

The ability to communicate is such an intrinsic part of what makes us human that it is hard for most of us to imagine what life is like for people who can’t understand us and are not understood by us. We are always communicating. We use words, but the clothes we wear, how we drive and who we choose as friends also communicate something — whether consciously or not.

Most of us easily learn and intuitively understand these non-verbal languages, but people who have autism don’t. People with autism are speaking to us, but we have not yet learned their language.

At the Celebration of Teaching & Learning yesterday, Peter Fauastino, President-Elect of the New York Association of School Psychologists (NYASP), said that everything a person with autism does should be viewed as communication and we need to try to understand what they are trying to say. Doing so will draw on all of our ability to think in pictures and in metaphors, to read non-verbal cues. It will require us to discover what we might be trying to say if we were acting the same way someone else is.

It won’t be easy. The language of autism is not systematic, there is no grammar and syntax. It will be more like learning to read Chinese while someone is screaming at you in Esperanto.

I am going to try.


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Celebration now, come on!

03/08/2009

This has been a week-end of celebrations.

Last night was my son’s fifteenth birthday, and I celebrated it by actually seeing him for the first time this week. I leave for work before he is awake enough to come downstairs, and this has been hell-week for his high school’s musical, Disco Inferno. Hell week means rehearsals after school until 11:00 or later every night. I try to be asleep before then, what with the alarm going off a little after four each morning.

Disco Inferno, if you’re not familiar with it, is a Faustian comedic-dramatic musical set in and around a London disco during the summer of 1976, and its filled with platform shoes, ruffled shirts, double-knit polyester leisure suits, and the beat-driven lyrically weak music of the era, including the song Celebration, originally done by the Trammps.
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Jonas has acted in several shows, but this was his first time working as a member of the crew. He celebrated opening night by going to what appears to be the first of a series of cast parties all four nights of the show. I got to see Jonas for the ten or so minutes it took to drive him there. I celebrated that, and staying out past midnight for the first time since New Year’s Eve by going to bed as soon as I got home. I would have stayed up until he came home at 2AM, but I had to get up early to catch a 6:15 train into the City to attend another, bigger, celebration.

Today was the second day of the Celebration of Teaching and Learning, an annual two-day teacher professional development marathon (actually more interesting than it sounds) and education trade show. I attended several sessions dealing with autism, including a speech by autism celebrity Temple Grandin. I al scored four tote bags (!!), the stereotypical teacher trade-show loot, and two t-shirts, one of which fits me. Celebration!

I also learned precisely how hard it is to find people in a crowd when you don’t know what they look like, so I had another celebration(!) when I finally managed to meet three of the new friends I’ve made on Twitter (where I’m known as spedteacher): @LParisi, @Karenjan and @CSouthard. Its usually nice to put faces and in-person personalities to on-line friends and this was no exception.

Now all these celebrations might lead you to think I’d want to put on my dancing shoes, and boogie down, but I have a different kind of celebration in mind. Man, I absolutely know how to get all the way down and have a CEL-LE-BRAYYYYYY-TION!

I’m going to bed.


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