Tuesday, February 9, 2021

Patience and Persistence

Most of my writings involve kids and adults on the autism spectrum.  My teaching experience, however, included students with a variety of conditions and labels.  One student from my more distant past stands out in my memory as the perfect example of why patience and persistence are prerequisites for breaking through barriers to communication.  I can't resist a little alliteration:  Prerequisites include patience, persistence, and the presumption of competence (always)!

I will call her Amanda to protect her privacy.  I am no longer in contact with her or her family, and thus not able to get needed permission to share her story with any identifying details. Amanda has Down Syndrome, and came to my classroom when she turned six years old, at a time when the entire elementary school was making significant efforts to make inclusion a reality for all students. For the most part, Amanda was a prime candidate for full inclusion with peers of her own age.  

As was true of all my students, Amanda hadn't tested well on whatever test was used to identify her intelligence level, and similar to so many of my students over the years, she didn't speak at all. There was much we didn't know about Amanda, but her really strong suit was her charming personality and she quickly became a favorite of teachers and kids alike.

She teased all of us by never letting anyone get too close, and by quietly disappearing from time to time, finding hiding places throughout the building that we didn't know existed.  We quickly learned that it was best to let Amanda set her own boundaries and make her own choices of which group activities appealed to her. If we operated on her terms as much as possible, great things happened - and she vanished from sight much less often.

Amanda enjoyed music, dancing, stuffed animals, puppets, dressing up in costumes or fancy clothes,  "reading" books, and scribbling with any sort of writing or drawing instrument on any sort of surface.  And then, there was the computer in the back of our room.  (See an earlier blog post about my love/hate relationship with computers,{Click Here} and realize also that we had only one in our resource room - and the demand was great).  During her time in our room, Amanda would strategically position herself close to the computer with a book or her writing materials and patiently await the moment when the computer station was idle and she could make her move.  With little or no help, she could navigate through a variety of games, handling the mouse as effectively as any of the classmates; indeed as well as most of the adults in her life --- we were all novices with the new technology at this time.

This was before the days of Internet connection, and we had a limited supply of floppy disks that provided a variety of learning games.  When Amanda was enjoying her computer time, I tried to watch from a distance, because if I got too close she would quickly exit the game and leave the area.  From afar, I was pleasantly surprised to see that she was happily practicing basic reading, spelling and math activities; none of which she had demonstrated for us using any other approaches we may have tried.

Something else to be noted:  Amanda's choice of books to "read" or just to carry around with her were not at all like those in her inclusive kindergarten classroom.  Our resource room served kids from kindergarten through grade five, and in her quiet, unobtrusive way, this independently-minded six-year-old girl who carried a label of "cognitively disabled" gathered together and claimed as her own books and workbooks with few pictures and lots of text.  Her favorites included books on the solar system, ecology, insects and animals, an atlas full of maps, and even a high school chemistry book she just happened to find lying around.

My all-time favorite Amanda story involves her fascination with scribbling.  Over and over again, she made tiny circles, followed later by a long period of making straight lines that appeared as hundreds of hatch marks on every possible writing surface, and then little squiggle marks that threatened to take over our classroom.  Amanda's writing appeared everywhere, and if left alone she would hum happily as she entertained herself in in this way for long periods of time.

I often tried to sit nearby as Amanda scribbled, but if I got too close or lingered too long, or (horror of horrors!) tried to talk to her, the humming stopped and she dropped her crayons or markers and moved on to some other area of the room

Until that magic day, when Amanda kept on scribbling while I talked, even glanced in my direction with a slight smile on her face.  Boldly, I moved a little closer, and then when she still didn't leave, I gently placed my hand on her forearm.  Immediately, Amanda tensed up, but didn't pull away, Quietly I explained to her that some of my students could spell out words if I just gave them a little support.  The marker immediately began to flow across the paper, and in large, smooth cursive (!) Amanda spelled her name!

At that point, she definitely looked at me with a huge smile and it was game on!  I asked her if she could spell the names of some of the other people in the room.  She spelled my name, followed by several others, and then was finished, leaving me behind shaking and crying as she quickly left the scene.

On the very next day, I asked Amanda to write with me again to demonstrate her writing for one of our classroom assistants.  Much to my amazement, she was willing, maybe even eager. We sat at the table with wipe-off boards and markers, and I suggested that she write the other woman's name.  Expecting a letter "C' or maybe "S" for Cindy, I was confused when Amanda very clearly made a straight line on the board.  This was followed by another straight line and my heart sank, thinking the prior day's experience had maybe only happened in my mind.  But I kept my hand on her forearm and gently encouraged her to keep going.  The final message is visible below:  "I love all of you" (partially in cursive) followed immediately by "I am so smart"

Yes, indeed, Amanda, you are, and so are many others just like you who are unable to speak.  Please forgive all of us for not recognizing this sooner.    I hope you are still doing well all these years later.