The Children I Teach
When I first announced to a group of conference attendees that I believed that any child can learn the violin, even children with motor planning issues, I was faced with mostly doubt. As I mentioned in the first part of this series, I am often seen as “not autistic enough” because I don’t display stereotypical autistic behaviours. They expect me to say inappropriate things, lack empathy and compassion, move with oddities with my body.
But I am not that person. I present as neurotypical to most people which makes many people doubt my diagnosis. This also leads many to assume that I do not fully understand their autistic child who appears “less functional,” or more autistic than I. When I say that any child can learn to play the violin, people simply feel I do not comprehend their experience with autism.
First, let’s lay to rest the issue of my autism.
On 16 August 2004, my son was diagnosed by his doctor has having autism spectrum disorder, and sensory issues. This is the same doctor that first made me aware of my own autism and suggested I seek a diagnosis. On the referral form, he wrote “mom may have autistic disorder.” I consider 2004 as the year I was diagnosed.
(Please note that some details have been blurred out to protect privacy)
A few years passed before I was able to pursue my own official diagnosis and subsequent therapy. Mostly because I was trying to support my son, navigate his autism, and support my daughters as a new single parent.
On 26 February 2007, two days before my 30th birthday, I was given an official, on the record diagnosis by Emory University Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. The DSM-IV codes pictured below are Asperger’s Disorder and PTSD.
I was a newly enrolled student at Agnes Scott College and I was seeking a way to make my school experience successful, something I had not experienced in my past. Not long after this, I was given a full Psychological Evaluation so I could receive disability services at the college. (I am not going to show you that document because frankly that is more detail than necessary to make my point).
Once the new DSM-V was released, I was recategorized by my Psychologist to fall under the new criteria as Autism Spectrum Disorder. In other words, my disability was still significant enough to remain diagnosed even under stricter criteria.
Next, allow me to explain my process of connecting to students with disabilities.
My experience with autism is exactly that, my experience. But, I am not unaware of the broad cognitive and neurological varieties in autism. In fact, I can easily project a mental scale of varying degrees after I experience any neurological misfires. Similar to the way one places pain on a scale based on their own experiences, I can do the same with experiences due to autism.
In fact, during a rather intense meltdown, I reached for my webcam. I placed on film a meltdown in real time to show my vulnerability and struggle. Within days of posting the video, a certified Speech language pathologist who teaches RPM (Rapid Prompting Method) in the D.C. area used my video in her RPM sessions with autistic, non-speaking and non-reliably speaking teens. The results were amazing.
Autistic teens thanked me for my bravery and honesty. Using RPM board, similar to the one below, they spelled out their reactions letter by letter. They said they experienced the same thing, and that there should be more videos like this to teach people what it is like to live with autism. Even though we were diagnosed on different degrees of the spectrum, we still shared the experience of autism. People with autism understand each other, even when we do not appear to.
The honesty and openness I share with you online is the same openness I share with my students. I tell every student that I have autism, and allow them to ask questions. When speaking to an autistic student, I share my struggles with learning that I have in common with the student. Being open allows the student and I to trust one another, and to never be ashamed of our differences.
Once I have presented myself as an open book, I allow myself to learn from the student. I watch their motor skills, their movements, both large and subtle. I note the weather, traffic and time of day when I see them to detect patterns and identify their stressors. I suspect many teacher do this, but what is it I really do different?
I presume competence.
When I see a student struggling I say to them, “I know your brain understands what I am telling you, but your body needs time to catch up with your brain. If you are patient and keep working with me, we can teach your body to do what you want it to do.” And do you know what happens next? They teach their body to do what their brain wants. Some take weeks, some take months. One student took a whole year to learn Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star on the viola, but he did it.
Imagine a world where everyone had that kind of tenacity and patience.
When I get to learn from the student.
On the 22 May 2016 we held Enlightened Audio Academy’s Spring Recital. The stage became a hallmark of neurodiversity as 23 students performed for 70 attendees. It was mind altering, tear jerking, and the most incredible excitement I have ever felt, surpassing all my personal experiences to date as a performer. And music wasn’t the only part of the concert pulling tears from the eyes of the audience.
Just before the concert I was approached by one of my autistic students about giving a speech at the recital. This is a huge task for a student that primarily uses the RPM board to communicate. Without doubt or reservation, I said she could speak.
I worked to make time in the recital for her speech, just following the intermission. She had spent two weeks working with her teachers to plan her speech and write it down. For an RPMer it is difficult to hold words in the mind.
I have her permission to post here what she had to say. It is common practice to show RPM words in all CAPS:
HI EVERYONE! FIRST LET ME PUT THE SPOTLIGHT ON LAURA NADINE. WE ARE WORKING TO MAKE HER CREATION COME TO LIFE TONIGHT. PLEASE GIVE HER A ROUND OF APPLAUSE.
SHE WAS ONE OF THE WOMEN WHO INSPIRED ME TO BE A VOICE FOR THE NON-SPEAKERS OF THE WORLD. MY TALKING IS RPM. RPM HAS GIVEN ME THE OPPORTUNITY TO BE A VOICE LIKE I ALWAYS WANTED. RPM IS A METHOD OF COMMUNICATION WHEN THE SPEECH WITHIN WILL NOT FORM WITH TYPICAL PRODUCTION, VIA YOUR MOUTH. WITH RPM, I POINT TO MY WORDS USING A LETTER BOARD.
MY WORLD WAS NOT SOMETHING FOR MY MIND BEFORE, IT WAS WASTED, LOCKED INSIDE. I WAS LOVED BUT NOT COMPLETELY UNDERSTOOD. LEARNING SOMETIMES FORCED ME TO SHUT DOWN. THE REPETITION OF THE WORLD WAS NOT WHAT I NEEDED OR WANTED. THE THING THAT HAS FREED MY MIND IS WHAT I HAVE ALWAYS WANTED, A MEANINGFUL EDUCATION. SOMETIMES THE WAY YOU ARE TREATED IS WHAT YOU BECOME.
NOW I AM SOMEONE WHO FIGHTS FOR AUTISTICS EDUCATION BECAUSE NOW I HAVE THE TOOLS TO DO IT. THE TOOLS IN MY CORNER ARE WONDERFUL PARENTS, TEACHERS, AND FRIENDS WHO SUPPORT ME AND LOVE ME. THEY HAVE PUT IN SO MUCH. FEW CAN SAY THEIR ABILITY TO COMMUNICATE THEIR THOUGHTS WAS THANKS TO THEIR FAMILY AND TEACHERS. ALL I TRY TO DO IS FIGHT SO OTHERS CAN ONE DAY SAY THE SAME.
PLEASE NEVER GIVE UP ON YOUR DREAMS. YOU NEVER CAN PREDICT WHAT MIGHT HAPPEN NEXT. HOWEVER, YOU MIGHT MAKE THE WORLD A BETTER PLACE FOR THOSE WHO ARE NEXT. THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR COMING TONIGHT.
All Autistic experience is valid, even if it doesn’t look like you think it should. Presuming competence and offering a platform for autistic voices is at the core of what we should be doing as teachers. Paralleling the experiences of autistic people can be helpful in creating supports, but it should never be used to denigrate the outliers to our expectations.