Saturday, December 04, 2010

Great expectations

Before bed tonight, the boys and I were all snuggled down with the iPad, ready to watch chapter 3 of Rockford's Rock Opera (a totally awesome "ecological musical story" about extinction -- how's that for bedtime fare?), when Nik called out to Oliver that it was time to brush his teeth. "No, Thanks." he replied. So I joked: "C'mon, Oliver, tell us how you really feel about it." and he said: "I don't want to brush my teeth." This wasn't an argument that he was going to win, but still! Pretty awesome if you ask me.

I tell you that by way of introduction to the real story behind this post, which is about working with the professionals that work with my son. Some of you may know that I had a pretty stressful experience with a couple of speech therapists over the summer. We were trying to find a new SLP, one who was a medicaid provider, so that Oliver could have speech all year long as opposed to nine months of the year as provided for by the school district.

What followed was a harrowing experience. The new SLP was a very sweet, well-meaning and caring individual who wanted to work with Oliver. And she had some experience working with kids on the spectrum. Unfortunately, it wasn't enough. Oliver balked at even going in to the building, she felt frustrated after each session, I felt like throwing up and I always ended up apologizing to Oliver for putting him through it. But the thing is? I wanted it to work out. I kept giving her the benefit of the doubt even when I saw that she couldn't, or wouldn't, incorporate my feedback.  For example, I suggested each week that she needed to incorporate more processing time for Oliver, that she should probably refrain from talking SO LOUDLY and that she could, after all, talk to him like an eight year old, not a baby (someday I'll write a rant about "therapy speech", which is right up there on my list of most hated things with sentences like: "Good sitting!" Attention all therapists: can you just try to be authentic with my child??). I also suggested that maybe it shouldn't matter if he got up from the table now and then and hopped around the room -- stuff like that.

Anyway, after six or eight weeks of this I was really ready to hang myself. And at the end of each session I would try to be positive and enthusiastic but really I was just super frustrated and saddened by another well meaning professional who looked at Oliver as a child who could not learn because of his "behaviors".  Carefully, diplomatically, I tried to explain that Oliver was responding to her and that, perhaps, by changing her approach she might also influence what he was able to accomplish. Why is this so hard to understand? Of course we respond to the person we are interacting with! Of course it impacts our behavior. This is true for everyone but maybe more so for kids who are so sensitive to the environment. But of course kids on the spectrum -- especially kids like Oliver -- aren't thought to be socially aware and so it becomes easy to throw one's hands up in the air and explain behaviors in terms of their "deficits."

At the start of the school year we happily went back to our old SLP, who is wonderful. I was, however, a little ambivalent when she told me that she would be supervising a graduate student intern who would be working with Oliver. On Thursday I listened to the session through the half-opened door and thought a lot about what I was hearing. Immediately I could tell that she was using far too much language, not allowing Oliver to process -- the result was that Oliver would verbally respond but without any thought whatsoever, rendering most of the session useless. The other thing I wondered about was this: why was it that she was struggling to get Oliver to respond using two word utterances when he is clearly producing much more complex language at home?

When the session was Over I went in and asked if I could share my observations and was gratified that both the SLP and the intern were enthusiastically receptive. When I brought up the question about language complexity, the student quickly assumed that this was a matter of generalization -- he could do it at home but not in the clinic (which I politely dismissed). After further discussion though, a light bulb went off for the SLP and she said: "It's all about partner expectations!" And there we have it: I know Oliver has full, complete, grammatically correct sentences in there and I won't let him get away with "want spin." But if you don't believe he is able to achieve more than that why would you even try? And Oliver, of course, is responding to the person he is interacting with: if you don't expect anything from him that is exactly what you will get.

I left the clinic feeling positively bouyant and hopeful. Because I know my boy has a long way to go but he will get there. And the getting there will be easier if I can keep finding professionals who are willing and able to turn the lens on themselves from time to time -- Lord knows I do it more often than I'd like to admit!

So tonight after the teeth were brushed and chapter three of the rock opera had concluded I asked Oliver to turn out the light, to which he responded, "No, thanks!" And then: "I. want. to. play. with. the. iPad."   He didn't win that argument either but I expect there will be many more in our future. In fact, I'm counting on it.


  1. I'm so with you on how professionals speak to our children. My daughter is fifteen years old and is non-verbal. I, too, feel like throwing up when people speak to her as if she were an infant.

    Your son Oliver sounds like a very cool dude.

  2. Holy cow, Christine. I know we've often remarked that it seems like we're going through some similar stuff at the same time, but this is so close to home it's eerie! We saw a major regression in Nik's communication after a few weeks of school; the expectations were so low AND the staff had no idea how to incorporate his speech device so they were willing to accept any communication instead of encouraging what we already know he could do.

    After three and a half weeks in his new program, Nik's communication skills are resurfacing. The only difference is the new SLP has higher expectations of Nik. She has the exact same level of exposur to/knowledge of his speech device as the other SLP...NONE. But she believes Nik is capable so she expects it...and he delivers.

    Glad you seem to have found a willing learner in the SLP's intern. She may catch on yet!

  3. Anonymous10:30 PM

    I find this holds true the most in the relationship between myself and Charlotte. Sometimes she starts acting up and I feel defeated and respond crappy and then it's just all downhill.

    But then other times I'll stop her and say, "Charlotte, is the kind of day we want to have? I expect more from you." And we laugh off her "silliness." And I swear she turns around.

    It's like every single day I have to decide that it's going to be a great day and communicate that to her, and it seems like she rises to it. Every time. But if I respond shitty to her, she responds shitty back. Does that make sense?

    Sometimes I feel like I'm the biggest influence on her - such a huge responsibility.