Saturday, October 5, 2013

Year Three: Cheerios and Cheese

During this third year of teaching, I had a little girl who was on the autism spectrum.  She was my first real experience with a young child with autism. She was 6 years old, non-verbal, not toilet trained, and would only eat two foods: Cheerios and cheese. Her mother reported that at 9 months, she had about four words. She smiled, interacted, played. And then she began to loose these skills. When I first started working with this young girl, she ignored all attempts to bring her out of her self-stimming world.  Nothing seemed to be reinforcing enough to get her to stop.

Being new to autism, I looked for inspiration and help anywhere I could. This book, Son Rise had just come out the year I was working with Marlene. In the book, Barry Kaufman and his wife Suzi, claimed to have cured their son Raun’s autism through a unique program they developed. Essentially someone was with Raun every waking moment. They decided that since he was not joining their world, they would join his. Whatever Raun did, spinning plates, rocking back and forth, making noises; they joined him in the same activity. I decided to give it a try!

I started right away. The two of us would find a quiet place to work. Whatever she did, I did. If she made noises, I made the same ones. If she jumped, I jumped. This was quite alarming to this child! For the first time all year, she stopped what she was doing and looked at me! She would make a frustrated sound and slap the table or wall with her hand. I would do the same. She looked more and more. Sometimes she cried and would walk away, and I would wait. She would come back, and do something and wait to see what I would do. Eventually she came to enjoy our time together and when I imitated her actions, she would smile and make excellent eye contact.

Since she seemed so much more “available” to me and her world, I decided to see what else I could get her to do. I used a Polaroid camera and took pictures of her two foods; cheerios and cheese. I sewed Velcro onto the apron I wore in the class, and attached the pictures to it.  I made sure I had these foods with me whenever we worked. Soon she started to look at the pictures and whenever she touched one, I gave her a little of that item. She caught on quickly, and eventually, I added pictures of other items or activities she showed an interest in. At home, she started pulling her mom into the kitchen and putting her mom’s hands on the refrigerator (to get cheese), or on the cupboard for the Cheerios. Her mom was amazed. This was the first time since she was a baby that she was attempting communication.  By the end of the school year, she was much more connected to her world, was communicating with pictures and some gestures, and was actively seeking out adult company. 

Sadly, this special little girl and her family moved away the next year, and I've never known what became of her. I often dream about her though, and in my dreams, she is laughing, playing and talking!