Autism encompasses many traits, but at its heart it's an expressive language disorder. So many kids on the spectrum—my 7-year-old with autism, Liam, included—struggle to make their wants, needs, and thoughts known. It's not that they don't have wants, needs, and thoughts; it's just that expressing them takes more work than most of us can even imagine. I had someone ask me a few days ago what "non-verbal" means when it comes to my son, and I really had to think in order to give the essence of this phrase, which increasingly fails to describe him. Sure, Liam may not talk, but he makes noises, points, leads adults to what he needs (kitchen cabinets, outside, the bathroom), problem solves, uses a picture-board on his iPad, and spells using RPM. With all these expressive language outlets in place, he's hardly a "non-verbal" child! He's "speaking" all the time, and I want to tell you about one of his most recent expressive language triumphs. It's the story of his first story, and I share it here to emphasize (again) all that kids with autism can do.
Before Liam wrote his first story, his RPM instructor did a lesson on the "Crow and the Pitcher," the fable about a crow who has to fill a pitcher with stones in order to get a drink. As with other RPM lessons, she read him the story, asked comprehension questions, and let him spell out his own answers based on questions like: "What was the crow's problem?" or "A crow is what kind of animal?"
This helped provide a foundation for Liam's creativity.
During Liam's next lesson (a few days later), his teacher wanted him to write his own story. I was a bit skeptical about this task, as he's never shown the inclination or ability for creative writing. But—as he so often does—Liam surprised me and reminded me not to underestimate him.
Through the course of the 30-minute lesson, I sat in the lobby of the RPM office, listening to Liam's teacher cheer him on, prompt him, and ask questions. I also heard a lot of jumping, vocalizations, and bumping into the door from Liam.
(This sort of movement is okay in RPM because it's a dynamic learning and teaching method. It doesn't demand Liam sit still in a chair in order to learn, and that's why it reaches so many kids with autism. Liam likes to move, and so his teacher moves with him as they work. )
During this creative writing lesson, Liam's teacher asked him several review questions about the fable of the crow, and then she talked about elements of the story.
She asked him for a character, and he spelled out "turtle."
She asked, "What are some things you know about a turtle?" He spelled out "slow" and "green."
She asked, "What is the turtle's problem?" He wrote out "He needs to move."
And then, from that information, slowly, slowly Liam wrote out this story by pointing to letters as his teacher asked him prompting questions like: "Where did the turtle live? What is his problem? How does he feel?" She filled in some of the words (in brackets below), but he did the bulk of the storytelling here.
"One day there was a turtle. He was slow.
[He lived] by a pond. A pond is wet.
He needs to move.
He feels sad. "
This 6-sentence story took 30 minutes, and while he wrote it, Liam spun around, spit into his hands (his new most-favorite stim), turned upside down, flopped out of his chair, and slumped in the corner. I can imagine that it would have been easy to dismiss his efforts, but Liam's teacher kept redirecting him and helped him through the sentences.
By the end of the lesson, Liam and his teacher emerged tired and triumphant, both of them crowing (if you'll forgive the fable-related pun) about all Liam had to "say" during this session.
And I suppose the moral of this little story is just this: Kids with autism can do so much, we just have to be patient, scaffold them for success, and believe in their potential.
Image Western Painted Turtle on a Rock by a Pond via Shutterstock and story/lessons images from Jamie Pacton