I know we are always exhorted to "Presume Competence!!" these days -- and it is a welcome shift in the autism rhetoric -- but frankly, I'll be really honest with you: I don't always know how to do it. I'm getting better and now that Oliver has the means to communicate it is a thousand times easier. A million, trillion times easier!! But before Oliver could communicate, before I understood that apraxia played a significant role in his ability to demonstrate his competence in almost all areas, I found it hard to understand that the support he needed was largely for his physical abilities and not cognition. At the age of nine, no professional had ever mentioned the word apraxia to me.
So, for example, when Oliver was nine and we were still working on 1:1 correspondence, he was unable to demonstrate to me that nine objects equaled 9. If someone had told me that I should just assume he understood and move on, I would have objected. I would have told you that if he can't demonstrate such a simple understanding how could he demonstrate anything more complex? Maybe a better teacher would have known how do it but I certainly did not and I'm guessing that the teachers in our local ABA program wouldn't have either.
If only I had understood that everything about a motor pattern -- initiating, maintaining and stopping -- required tremendous mental focus for my boy! I would not have endlessly come up with new ways to teach him the concept of counting without factoring in the actual physical ability to execute the task I laid before him. If you had told me to presume competence I wouldn't have known how to do it! That's why you won't hear me use those words very often. At one time they would have seemed very hollow to me. But I also believed -- truly, truly believed -- that my boy had endless untapped potential. I was doing everything I knew how to do, I just didn't know how to tap into it. I think this is the maddening part for most parents. So if you are one of those people frustrated by the phrase, I want to tell you: I get it!
Presuming competency works if a person is given the right supports. That is the critical missing part of the "Presume Competency" mantra. Providing the right support means understanding the nature of a person's challenges and it isn't always self-evident. So this is where I fell short. And, I'm guessing, where many, many others fall short. When autism as a motor difference is more widely acknowledged, I'm guessing that teaching strategies and research agendas will show that Oliver is special only in his luck and circumstances. I believe that there are many, many other Olivers out there silently waiting!
So, anyway, back to the piano! One of the first things Oliver told me when he began writing (nearly three years ago!!) was that he wanted to be a pianist and learn to compose music.
So, um, yeah. Where to begin?!
My knowledge of music is limited to a mental picture of black squiggles on horizontal lines and the phrase Every Good Boy Does Fine. That's it. But by that time I did know certain things about Oliver: He has a photographic memory. He has trouble locating his body in space. He learned to read by deciphering patterns, not through phonics -- which I understood to be whole to part learning rather than part to whole: Gestalt learning. And that he would not tolerate masking tape on the keys of the piano. Things must not stick together in this household!
Armed with these bits of information I spoke to several local piano teachers. All of them looked back at me blankly. None seemed overly enthusiastic at the prospect of a student like Oliver. One agreed to give it a try. I knew we were doomed when he showed up with a roll of masking tape. We gave up at the end of the second lesson. Sometimes it's good to know when to call it a day!
I put the idea of learning piano on the back burner for awhile, which was easy given the amount of time and energy that has gone into this year's great Public School Adventure! But it was always in the back of my mind. When Oliver tells me he wants to learn something, I'm not bound to give up easily. And then, one day last December, I read about a piano teacher that made me think it was time to try again.
So we did. And, Friends? I'm back to where I started this post because it has been a revelation. A revelation in what a person can do when he is understood and given the right supports. My boy is playing the piano! He is on his way to achieving this thing that seemed so out of reach just a short while ago. And without the right physical supports, and the right teacher, it would have been just that: out of reach!
There is so much to tell you, really. How I found this awesome, incredible teacher. How she recognizes his strengths and teaches to them. How she effortlessly assumes his competency even when I'm still not sure! How she totally gets how he processes information. How I always leave a lesson thinking: Well, this next step is going to be hard! And then how it totally isn't even a fraction as hard as I imagined! Just thinking about it makes me want to explode with happiness. Happiness for Oliver in his achievement and happiness that I could finally help him do something he has wanted for so long.
I never dreamed that learning to play the piano would wind up being such a powerful force in our lives, but it is shaping up to be as significant as when Oliver first started writing. As significant as learning to ride a bike!
I can't even begin to tell you! But I'm going to try: so don't be surprised if my next couple of posts are about the music.
In the meantime, here are two short clips. The first is after two lessons and the second after five.