I was fascinated with Jimmy, an exotic looking boy with dark eyes and straight jet-black hair. Like many others with autism, he liked routine; changes often lead to tantrums.
Jimmy had minimal functional language skills and needed visual cues–actual objects, sign language, and or pictures in a communication book. He was taught to make requests for desired food items or classroom supplies by pointing to communication pictures as he verbalized, “I want ______.” His speech was slow and labored and his intonation was flat. He could not initiate communication without a visual stimulus nor could he express himself beyond "I want ______." Over time, Jimmy was able to learn rote responses to questions about personal data that I taught him. He began by reading the responses and then the words were eventually removed. After much repetition, he could recite his name, address, phone number, parents and sibling’s name.
I taught Jimmy to read by using an ESL (English as a Second Language) program, which used a series of word cards that could be matched to corresponding picture cards. Having the word and picture cards divided into categories and parts of speech, seemed to help him organize and access information. Jim demonstrated to me that he could match the words to the appropriate pictures and could answer questions about them. Soon, he seemed to have an extensive sight word vocabulary and He also began reading books at a primary level.
I usually worked with Jimmy in a small group. I naively assumed that he could answer rote questions and read for others as he did me. One day, I asked Cathy, one of my assistants, to read with him. She told me that Jimmy could not or would not read for her. I walked over and he started to read out loud. When I stepped away, he became mute. I was confused. I asked another assistant to try. The result was the same. He either would not or could not read for either of them if I walked away.
Curious about this anomaly, a few weeks later, this same astute assistant, along with a former teacher of Jim’s, asked him questions about his personal data that she had heard him repeatedly answer for me. For each of them, he just made the sound “je”. This was a consistent sound he made when he seemed not to be able to respond. Hearing the familiar “je”, I looked over at Jimmy from across the room and said, “What is your name?” He answered: “Jim Logan.” Next, Cathy asked him where he lived? Again he just responded “je”. From across the room, I then asked the same question. He looked at me and responded,"845 West End Avenue."
After a few more trials that presented the same results, Cathy instructed Jim to look at me as she asked the questions. “What is your mother’s name?” Jim looked at me and responded “Jim Logan.” He continued to be able to respond to the rote questions she asked him only if he looked at me while he was answering them. Determined to get to the bottom of this, Cathy asked me to go into the hall and stand to the side of the doorway, where I was not visible. She instructed Jim to look at the doorway and proceeded to ask him the same rote questions; he again was mute except for the sound “je”. She then told me to put my hand in the doorway with my face and the rest of my body out of sight. I did so with my palm facing Jim. Cathy instructed Jim to look at my hand as she continued to ask him questions about his personal data. Jimmy gave the correct verbal responses. I was blown away!
Lessons Jim taught me:
• Develop trust. Make sure the child feels safe. Take nothing for granted.
• Demonstrated competency of a skill for one person may not transfer to others. Make sure that once a skill is learned, that the child demonstrates it to a variety of people in diverse situations.
• Certain people may serve as a catalyst for demonstration of language and academic competency. Just the appearance of my hand about eight feet away gave Jimmy the impetus to respond. Why? I can only speculate.
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