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I probably drive teachers absolutely nuts, but it's because I know my boy needs reinforcement - constant, continuing, unending reinforcement - to master concepts. As I tell every teacher, therapist, and service provider that works with Jack, the work doesn't end when he leaves their care. Therapy and school is a 24/7 adventure in our house. It's incorporated into Floortime and into everything in between.
I went home and looked up the program called Read It Once Again. At first, I was a little skeptical. You see, Jack's learning style tends toward rote memorization. His memory borders on eidetic at times and he can remember precise details of many things, especially ones that are repeated exactly over and over again. You might ask, how can you be sure that Jack remembers such detail when he struggles to communicate and use more than single words spontaneously and meaningfully? Good question, and I'd respond that a) echolalia is a window into what Jack has memorized - he can recite entire TV shows and books from memory (which is delayed echolalia, for those of you not down with the lingo), and b) other things, like the way he arranges things, especially based on Super Why! episodes, is crazy precise.
He's like an elephant; he never forgets.
So, when I was told that they'd be starting a curriculum where the same book was read every day for a month, I was a bit worried. The program takes a single classic children's story - the first month's was From Head to Toe by Eric Carle - After all, that's just a ripe situation for rote learning and transition problems as they move from unit-to-unit.
However, as I read more on the program, to my astonishment I learned that it was designed for kids with autism. It made sense; many programs for teaching children with autism are based on repetition, repetition, and more repetition.
But how would my boy do with this? Honestly, with the exception of watching Super Why! and playing with his letters for the past...well...year, my boy doesn't exactly have a love of reading. In order to read a book to him at home, we practically have to pin him down. He'll kick, scream, and yell "all done!", particularly if the book isn't familiar. The unknown is just far too anxiety-inducing for him.
At the end of the first unit, his teacher sent home a copy paper version of From Head to Toe. I pulled it out of his bag and showed the first page to him. It had a gorilla on it. Of course, I wasn't surprised when he started spouting out the words as though on auto-pilot..."I'm a gorilla and I thump my chest. Can you do it?" He had heard this book every single day for 3 weeks, of course he had it memorized.
What came next was the surprise. He raised his fists to his chest and in a primitive display of preschool virility, he beat his chest like Tarzan.
You get this, right? Do you? Maybe you don't, so I'll explain. Jack has struggled forever with something known as motor planning, which is your ability to plan out a motor sequence and execute it. I suspect that's part of why Jack is so poor at imitating motor movements, because he can't plan and sequence the actions out in his mind. When he was a baby, I'd watch intently to see if he'd imitate, as all of the baby books said he would early on. He never did. I'll ask him to "do like Mommy" as I try so desperately to get him to copy my actions by waving, sticking out his tongue, or anything. They work on it in both OT and PT. Even a simple motor sequence - like thumping his chest - is something that we've never seen him do before.
Until that day. My boy just did a simple motor action that I had never seen him do before. I turned the page. "I'm a giraffe and I bend my neck. Can you do it?" He didn't "bend" his neck, but he shook his head. Close enough. I moved on. "I'm a crocodile and I wiggle my hips. Can you do it?" He grabbed the front of his pants and pulled the fabric from side-to-side. Again, close enough!
And so it continued. He stomped his feet. He turned his head. He kicked his leg. All on cue.
I couldn't believe it. I had just seen my boy perform several motor actions that he had never done in my presence before!
You want to know the secret? It was the repetition. Someone - the para-pro, OT, or PT - was helping Jack obtain those motor positions through hand-over-hand assist every day until he could do it with just some gentle tapping for prompts and - finally - with just the visual prompt of the book.
I ran out that very next day and bought the board book version of the book so that Jack could turn the pages independently and look at the book himself - and he did. He pulled it out several more times before the next book became ingrained in his mind.
This month, they've moved on to Goodnight Moon, so From Head to Toe has been forgotten. I have tried to give him verbal prompts for the actions in the latter, but he doesn't seem to know it receptively (he doesn't understand the words verbally) so he needs the visual prompt from the book, which he's not interested in now that they've read Goodnight Moon for 4 weeks. From Head to Toe is clearly so last month, and he screams "NO!" if I pull it out.
But now he's interested in Goodnight Moon. He'll pull it out and say "Goodnight Moon", which is incredibly hard to understand in Jack-speak. I'll prompt Jack with "Jack says 'Mommy read?'", which he'll parrot right back to me as he's backing up to sit in my lap. He'll actually let me read it, but I don't always get very far into it before he walks away. He hates it when I touch him, which is a challenge when he's sitting in my lap. Unfortunately, I also haven't memorized the exact inflection his teacher uses, so I'm not doing it right. I'm trying, though.
Still, my boy is interested in a book, if only for a short while before the next unit. So, thank you, Eric Carle, for helping my boy with something so small - like thumping his chest - but so huge in our world. Even though I can't get him to replicate it (there's no chest-thumping in Goodnight Moon), you have no idea how big it is that my boy could do something like that.