To me, working with a child with Autism is like looking at someone through a patchy fog. At times, you see a glimmer of something and then it's gone. You may wonder if it was only your imagination.
The way to get through the fog is to use the child's PASSION as a bridge between the two of you. You can go to him and, in turn, he can come to you.
I met AL in his home, but I wasn't there to treat him.
I was there to work with his brother, who had severe Verbal Apraxia.
AL had Autism, and every time I left that house I would smile, say goodbye to him and touch his hair, without much response.
Each time I left his home without treating him, I had this feeling in the pit of my stomach. It was as if I suffered a sense of loss.
After a few weeks of this feeling, I told his mother, "You have to let me treat him; even for only 10 minutes. I can't come here and ignore him. It's killing me."
That was 1 year and 8 months ago.
The reason why I wasn't being asked to treat him was that they were on a wait list for another, new costly treatment.
They were torn, because they wanted to know if the other treatment would truly work, and didn't want any gain caused by my intervention to muddy the results.
That's a scientific way to think. Although I found it a bit frustrating waiting for the time to come when they would allow me to try to work with him, I respected their choice.
Meanwhile, the sessions with his brother were going so well that the difference in their skill levels was becoming more and more obvious.
AL was accepted into the other new treatment program and they went a few times, and were trained in the methodology, doing what they were required to do; as far as exercises and such.
Finally, AL's mom said I could spend time working with her son with Autism. I smiled, and felt a sense of relief, as our dance of healing began.
It Was Not Easy
AL was difficult to engage. He liked order, and lining things up. He didn't talk much, and when he did he often whispered or used an odd tone or quality of voice.
AL played in isolation, and didn't attempt to communicate with his brother or his older sisters at all.
His parents were very worried about him and his development. They felt he was intelligent, but were saddened that he couldn't show how smart he was to others.
The Alphabet ~~~ The 1st Passion I Noticed
One day AL began lining up alphabet blocks in order. By doing this he demonstrated that he knew the alphabet and which letter came after which.
I pointed to each letter and said the letter name aloud. Within minutes he began to point to each one, and say each letter name aloud, as well.
The next session, after he lined up the blocks, I said, "A is for apple," while pointing to the picture of the apple on the A block.
Then I said, "B is for ball," pointing to the ball on the B block.
As I moved my finger to the next block, AL joined in and said, "C" and I said, "is for ___," and he answered, "cat."
We finished the alphabet that day. Sometimes he struggled with word recall and got stuck. His eyes darted around, as if he were searching for the word in his mind.
Whenever he struggled, I filled in the missing word. Each time he grinned and seemed pleased. We were functioning like a team. We were sharing the task and helping each other. His mom watched us. Her eyes sparkled as she smiled. She observed us closely, trying to remember each success, so that she could report it to AL's dad when he returned home from work.
The following session I worked on breaking his habit of lining up the blocks. We did the same activity, but I only let him go up until J on the table. I placed the K block on top of the A block, and worked left to right again. The last few letters made up a third tier.
AL didn't like it at all; he fussed and whined. But, I kept encouraging him in a calm, yet upbeat voice, to try stacking the blocks in this different way. Little by little he was able to tolerate the blocks in this varied (3-level) formation.
Numerals ~~~ The 2nd Passion I Noticed
Some of the same blocks had numerals. He liked numbers, too. He put the blocks in order from 1 to 10 on the table, from left to right. When he looked away I quickly took a block away and hid it. He started to panic. I asked, "What's missing?" in a light hearted sing-song intonation. He pushed the blocks together to get rid of the gap, but then saw the numeral was still missing and began to cry.
I asked, again, "What's missing?" in a louder voice. With such a sad face on, and his eyes filled with tears, he meekly answered, "two," and I quickly put the block back in place. He sighed in relief and counted the ten blocks again. Each time I took a block his negative reaction became less intense, as I desensitized him to the "out of order" situation that was so disconcerting to him.
After two more sessions he seemed to enjoy the "What's Missing?" game, and smiled when we clapped, hooted and hollered each time he told us what was missing. We did it with things he was passionate about; numbers and letters. I mirrored his passion for letters and numbers and we shared the joy it brought.
AL's sense of trust in me was growing each and every session. He began greeting me at the door, and coming over to say goodbye when I left (sometimes offering his cheek up for a kiss).
The trust that developed, by using his passion, helped his anxiety levels to lower little by little over time. He began to engage more, because he realized that he could depend on me to do the right thing in the end. Whatever went missing was always returned. Things could be a little scary at times, and then peace and order would return. Playing a game with another person could be fun!
I am grateful that I was given the opportunity to play with AL and learn from him; these are things I can then use to help other children. I learn more from children EVERY day. They are my BEST teachers.
I am Noelle Michaels. I'm a speech and learning specialist who enjoys helping families brainstorm new ways to help their children. Please reach out to me, if you would like any advice or information. I'm always glad to connect, because I truly love my job!
I am available for families in the North Jersey area to do a FREE 30-minute consultation.
I am available via email or phone, and will speak to any parent or professional with questions or concerns. Let's work together to help children speak and learn at higher levels!
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Noelle Michaels, MA, CCC-SLP, LDT-C
Bilingual Speech Language Pathologist
Special Educator & Learning Specialist