When you work with Soma (as James had the opportunity this weekend) you never quite know what will happen in the course of the lesson or conversation and you always come away amazed not just at her genius but at her unshakeable belief in the ability of her students. For those readers unfamiliar with the RPM philosophy, one of the primary tenets is that you presume competence. It really is one of the reasons the method is so successful. When a student works with her I think they immediately sense her view of them as an intellectual equal and they relax. Not only can they relax but they can look forward to learning some new and unusual information!
Yesterday James had a lively conversation with Soma about modern art, sound (including the difference between noise and music), the lack of sound in outer space and the importance of appreciating life. This all took place in the first part of the session so then he asked her to tell him a story! She didn’t miss a beat and began to tell him about the life of Edward Lear, an English poet and artist who lived in the 19th century. Edward Lear developed seizures early in adulthood and he was abandoned by most his family as a result. He wandered the world as an artist and eventually ended up in Italy where he began to write limericks to entertain himself because he was lonely. These nonsense poems which originated in Limerick, Ireland were made popular by Lear. Soma explained that a limerick has 5 lines. The first two lines are long and rhyme. The second two are short and the fifth line is long and rhymes with the first one. Then she asked James to write a limerick. Here is the first one he wrote:
THERE WAS A MAN FROM NEW YORK
HE NEVER LIKED BIG PIECES OF PORK
HE LIKED THEM SMALL
LIKE GOLF BALLS
THEN PICKED THEM UP WITH A FORK
Here is the second one:
THERE WAS A GIRL FROM DENVER
SHE WOULD CRY ALL NOVEMBER
WE ASKED WHY
BUT SHE WAS SHY
WE WAITED FOR FIRST OF DECEMBER
The next session Soma thought it was a good idea for James to work on a small book of limericks so she had him write 6 or 7 more! This is what I mean by presuming competence. She also challenged him by giving him the city or place that the limerick should start and asked him to go from there. Below are two more limericks. I will tell you that at the end of his 7th one he told her, NOW I HAVE WRITERS BLOCK!
THERE WAS A MAN FROM PARIS
HE LIKED TO CHERISH
HE HAD HIS BOOKS
HIS LIBRARY SHOOK
HE CONTINUED TO READ WITH RELISH
I KNEW A MAN FROM L.A.
HE DID NOT LIKE TO DELAY
HE WAS SAD
WHEN THINGS TURNED BAD
SO HE BEGAN TO LIVE AND PLAY
Last month James’ speech therapist did a great lesson on Christopher Columbus. It had all the components of a good lesson because first of all the whole idea of setting out in a wooden ship 500 years ago into unchartered territory is fascinating and second, there is a lot to imagine and think about regarding all of life’s journeys, historical and famous ones, and the regular ones like our own. Elizabeth got James thinking about the fact that Columbus didn’t find what he expected and asked him to write about that.
“Describe an event when things did not go according to plan. What did you do to navigate unexpected changes in plan? How did the event turn out?”
SOMETIMES THINGS DO NOT TURN OUT AS PLANNED HOWEVER, THEY OFTEN HAVE A WAY OF WORKING OUT. I AM AN EXAMPLE OF THIS PRINCIPLE. I AM SURE I AM NOT THE CHILD MY PARENTS EXPECTED. I DON’T THINK ANY PARENT EXPECTS TO HAVE A CHILD WITH AUTISM. I THINK THAT EVEN THOUGH I WAS NOT WHAT MY PARENTS EXPECTED I HAVE MADE MAJOR CONTRIBUTIONS TO MY FAMILY. I THINK MY FAMILY HAS HAD TO LEARN TO GET ALONG AS A TEAM. I THINK MY FAMILY HAS BECOME CLOSER BECAUSE OF MY AUTISM. I WOULD NOT WANT MY LIFE TO BE ANY DIFFERENT THAN IT HAS BEEN.
“It has long been an axiom of mine that the little things are infinitely the most important.”
― Arthur Conan Doyle, The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes
I had lunch this week with a friend of mine who in my opinion really understands autism. She has taught children with all levels of autism, the highly verbal and the non-verbal. She knows James well and has been his teacher. She was thrilled for us last year when we met Soma and had such an extraordinary breakthrough of communication using RPM. She definitely believes that James is a smart kid and she knows we wouldn’t make up the things he says on the letterboard but I am guessing there was still some doubts about some of the things we reported he was spelling. It is easy to understand this because a lot of what we report about James’ progress is rather extraordinary and honestly its fun to shock people with the vocabulary he uses and the things he writes about. In fact, our SLP sometimes calls the big words that James and her other clients use in RPM as “liar” words because when reported to others they might think she is lying!
So during lunch with my friend I excitedly reported to her that an 11-year-old girl we both know had just taken off with RPM and had asked her mom if “she could study others who had been ostracized”. My friend said (and I paraphrase) “well that is great but can she tell her mom that she prefers the green shirt to the blue one, because really life is made up of the little conversations we have throughout the day, and can these kids do that or are they just writing the big words and the lofty thoughts”? Gosh, I was surprised by this question but it makes sense. If we just tell people about the big things being said they may not understand how truly important the little things are and how much they have changed our lives. And they may not totally believe us either. Last thing I want to do is give doubters more reason to doubt! So I wrote this blog post to say that for every big thought being spelled on our letter board there are 20 that are mundane. But those mundane thoughts have made life so much easier. Despite having some speech James doesn’t mean a lot of what he is verbally expressing. It comes from the 10 plus years of speech therapy and ABA where we drilled words and phrases into him and they are so ingrained that when he goes to retrieve a word often an unintended one comes out. Now we say to him “do you mean that or something else?” and give him the board to tell us what he is REALLY thinking. Of course it’s not always pretty. One of the first times that my family was gathered after we were using RPM, we were sitting in a circle waiting for James to say something profound to his Grandmother on her 86th birthday and he said I DON’T LIKE THE BIRTHDAY CAKE. It wasn’t what we expected but it was so nice to know why he was acting irritable!
One more thing about lunch with this friend. We were celebrating her birthday and mine. When the cake and candle came I realized that for the last 13 years I have wished for the exact same thing. That James would talk. This is the first year my wish has come true!