The following blog was inspired by the memoir, Cowboy and Wills, in which Monica Holloway shares the touching story of her son's (Wills) diagnosis of autistic spectrum disorder and the golden retriever (Cowboy) who coaxes him into the world. Cowboy and Wills was the August selection of the online book club From Left to Write.
Much in the way that when I was a teenager I was fairly certain I knew what it felt like to be an adult, when I was a teacher of children with autism I thought I knew what it was like to be a parent.
I loved my students. I was fortunate enough to work in a system where continuity of care was valued, so the babies that came to me in preschool, barely verbal, developmentally delayed and whirling dervishes of frustration remained with me through their primary years. Across this span of time, I saw children who could not make sounds in imitation learn to speak, students who could not tolerate getting a drop of glue on their finger participate in art projects and kids who would eat nothing but plain bagels expand their palate. For many of the kids who were fortunate enough to receive early intervention, their progress was at once miraculous and a lot of hard work.
There were methods behind the miracles:
- Discrete trial teaching—breaking down tasks into their smallest component parts and introducing them with painstaking repetition. Keeping data on every single trial and only moving on to a new skill once the child had “mastered” the task and “generalized” it across settings and situations. Teaching, not only was this picturing of a white fluffy Persian a cat, but so was this Calico, this Maine Coon, this Manx, this Scottish Fold.
- Backwards chaining—taking a simple task of everyday living…something most people do without giving it a second thought…breaking it down into steps, and gradually fostering independence by fading out ones “prompts” backwards, step by step: wet the toothbrush, put on the toothpaste, brush the right upper quadrant, the left upper quadrant, spit…etc.
- Social stories—scripts of how to conduct oneself during everyday events, demystifying the process for those who didn’t understand “neurotypicals” bizarre social rituals: When I meet a new child I smile, say “hello” and ask his (or her) name, looking into his (or her) eyes.
All of which had to be taught with great patience and hope.
As a teacher, great patience was my job. I had nothing else I needed to focus on. I could say something once and make a child follow through. I could environmentally engineer the room to minimize overwhelming stimuli. I could help a child take a jacket on and off over and over and over again, without the press of having to get out the door.
And, I could do it all without the great pain of thinking, this is my child: Will he ever tell me he loves me? Will she ever use the bathroom independently? Will the sound of the fire alarm always cause him great physical pain? Will she have a happy and meaningful life? I did wonder and care about these things, but not with the intensity that the parents did. How could I? I had my kids on loan for six hours a day. And even worse, one day they would leave me for another teacher, another class, another school. My time with them was limited. I was attached, but I knew that one day I would have to let them go.
So, if my students were every to achieve the goals we set for them, their parents would have to become teachers as well. They would have to set aside their frustrations, their disappointments, their sorrows and persevere. It is hard, as a teacher who is not yet a parent to understand that divorcing emotion from experience is an impossibility.
It took having a child for me to get it. If Sophia refuses to eat…how deeply panicked it can make me feel. If Sophia refuses to sleep…how everything is made more difficult by our mutual exhaustion. If Sophia lashes out at others…how deeply embarrassed I am. Her tenacity is unlike anything I have ever experienced. The pressure to give in to her demands is enormous. And when I make a decision, I often question whether I am doing the RIGHT THING.
Like me, the other teachers turned parents I know have had to learn how to let things slide. For example, that one can’t necessarily make a resistant child say “goodbye” to a friend…and is the fight, which won’t result in a genuine expression of affection, really worth it? How do you decide what to let slide and what to enforce? What is the magic formula that results in general compliance and healthy development? When do you cross the line into spoiled brat territory?
It isn’t quite as cut and dry as I once thought it was.
Life outside the classroom is messy…filled with the unexpected.
As a member of the online book club From Left to Write, I received Cowboy and Wills from the publisher free of charge. I was not paid to write this essay. See how other moms were inspired by this book here.