"Put away your coat and backpack!" Nothing too unusual about that phrase, especially when said to a schoolboy on arriving off the bus.
On hearing that phrase on this Monday morning, Charlie attempted to (and did not) head bang and cried. He did well the rest of the day; his teacher is planning on moving him on to earning two tokens for every one reinforcement item (i.e., he will be on a 2:1 ratio of tokens to reinforcement). After school, he was kind of glum getting off the bus and, when I asked him "put away your coat on the chair!", the same thing happened (well, just a little cry).
I stepped forward, paused, repeated my request and, half moaning, Charlie picked the coat up and set it on a chair. "Thank you!" I rushed to smile. Charlie perked up after a fast-paced ABA session and a half-hour of OT. Determined to make the most of every therapy opportunity, I said to the OT, "We'd like to concentrate on his fine-motor skills--work on writing, perhaps."
The OT started to stay something then turned to asking Charlie to "pull!" on a colored cord as he swung on a platform swing. Be encouraging, everyone has to be pulling for Charlie, I reminded myself as he jumped into a huge white bag of foam pieces for fifteen minutes. "Charlie," said the OT, "let's go to the small room."
She had him sit at a table and write his name, draw a circle and a line. Charlie looked out the corner of his eyes until I repeated the OT's requests. The OT drew a circle, a half-oval, three dots for the eyes and nose. "You do that!" Charlie stared towards the wall, Charlie regrasped the pencil, Charlie s-l-o-w-l-y made a floppy circle and the eyes and nose.
The OT and I clapped and cheered and smiled and smiled as Charlie meekly sat. "It's the first time I've seen him draw a face," I told her. "He's really connecting tonight," she nodded back. I noted that Charlie has been in his new school for a month; he still has a lot to learn, but he is on the right path.
I have been studying the writings of the autistic author (and animal behavior expert) Temple Grandin and of other autistic writers (such as Sue Rubin and Tito Rajarshi Mukhopadhay), to understand how they use language as I seek clues to understanding Charlie. My main conclusion so far is that, for Charlie and perhaps other autistic persons, certain words and phrases are associated with meanings that are entirely specific to his past, unique experiences.
That is, one day at his old (public) school, an aide or teacher in Charlie's class may have said "put away your coat and backpack." It may have been a morning on which it was especially hard for Charlie to wake up. Perhaps he had not been able to eat his waffle for breakfast; perhaps he had a nightmare due to a stomachache. The request to "put away your coat and backpack" was too much for a groggy schoolboy early in the morning. He threw himself and his head to the floor, everyone responded loudly and worriedly, and Charlie thereafter associated that phrase with "how I get a lot of attention early in the morning."
I know Charlie's new school and teachers will teach him the difficult task of unlearning the "put away your coat and backpack" / tantrum association. It is perhaps the hardest thing for any teacher to teach, to unlearn something rather than to learn.
The measure of how Charlie is doing in school and his therapy sessions is not that he has "no behaviors." It is all about whether he is learning new things to replace those "behaviors." It is easier in the short run to lower our demands and expectations on Charlie (sure, just leave the coat on the floor). It may be harder (there may be screams and other protest behaviors) if we insist that he put away his coat (and hat, shoes, gloves, backpack and lunchbox too)--but this path is only harder temporarily. Charlie's potential for learning is limitless and I'm shooting straight for the stars.
"Burger, burger!" Charlie called as we entered the house after OT.
"Put away your coat and vest on the chair," I said. Charlie looked at me under his eyebrows as he pulled them off and cast them on the chair before grabbing his blue blanket and running into the kitchen. "I want burger!" he called, just as loud and clear as he had on Saturday night in a nice Philadelphia restaurant.
I had to smile, with a bit of a twist to my mouth, just like Charlie drew.