08 March 2008

Doing the Dance

I had to go along to Linus' class at Autism Queensland this week.
I'm generally resistant to these occasions, if that's the right word. Resistant, like a cat about to be given a bath. I have managed to wriggle out of a whole bunch of these, and that is because they are usually not much fun.

There's one in particular that still makes me want to groan when I remember it. It was intended to celebrate Mother's Day 2005. I was ill, as it happened, with depression and anxiety. A physician decided I should try a course of hormones that day, which made me instantly nauseous, as well as teary and miserable. Linus' teacher at the time had done two week's worth of arm twisting so I'd remember to turn up early for a special afternoon tea and a little show, so there was no way I wasn't going. Each time she mentioned it, it sounded as if she had only just thought of it: "Oh, by the way..." with no reference to the previous reminders. I played along with this, cheerily saying that I'd make a note of it as if it was the first I'd heard of it. I didn't really want to attend, but I tried to be upbeat about it.

The thing is, I turn up, and then I remember why these things are usually so painful. In spite of feverish preparations on the teacher's part, I know that my sweet little kid isn't going to do the little D.A.N.C.E. or whatever...

Depending on the school, Linus' autism has put him in classes with other children whose difficulties have varied widely. There have been children with intellectual impairment, and children with physical disabilities.

I am in awe sometimes at what they and their parents have to overcome. There was one little boy wheelchair bound because his bones tended to break easily, and he had no pain sensation to tell him that he'd hurt himself. On that day, even this kid was having a go at the counting song tootling out of the cd player. Other children were dancing, as best they could. My son was under a table, crying, with his hands clamped over his ears. I wanted to join him. I don't think anyone had noticed that I'd gone green at the offer of scones with cream and jam prepared by the children. My son is adorable, but his hands are always sticky. I might eat something he prepared but only if I could personally verify that his hands were clean and didn't stray during the entire process. I had to pass on the sole choice of earl grey tea, which I dislike even when I'm not sick. The teacher, full of energy herself, prodded all of the stressed and weary mothers to put down their refreshments and dance, too. Wishing to be a good sport, I got up and tried to coax Linus out, but he wasn't having any of it. I knew he wouldn't. I didn't blame him, and even would have liked to join him under there. Instead, I found myself shuffling along with forced bonhomie with another child. Linus stayed under the table until it was time to go home. We were both glad to get out of there.

I feel bad that I feel that way about it, but I've been through a lot of these. Sometimes they've been in amongst a mainstream class, and so when they can't or won't do whatever is being presented, it's especially noticeable. To be confronted with your child's developmental delay never fails to feel exactly like a kick to the guts, only you have to smile encouragingly anyway, as if proud moments like these are all you live for. I'm never sure if I'm fooling anyone, but I really do try not to let despair cloud my features.

Eventually Ben did manage to figure out that if he did something clever or amusing the approval and encouragement he'd receive was something he could enjoy. In particular, there were a few book character costume parades that went well, one of them because I was in the parade, in costume with him. The same approach hasn't worked with Linus. He isn't interested in performing. He doesn't like groups, and totally loses his cool in crowds. He wants no part of it.

So with all this behind me, there I was this week at Autism Queensland. I found myself sneaking in a crouch around and behind the building, commando style, led by a member of staff. Neither of my children were to know I was there, and especially not Linus, whom I would be observing through a back window.

I've had remarkable luck with finding the most wonderful teachers and therapists. If I've done nothing else of consequence, I've at least found the right people to help. This particular teacher is omnicompetent; infinitely patient, always tactful, kind, and persistent. She has made definite progress with Linus in the last year. I begged out of class visits for most of that time, but when she sent home a note this term asking if I would consider attending, I wrote back asking her to recommend a session. She indicated that a numbers lesson would be good for me to see, and so this was what I was watching through the window.

Linus isn't showing any savant abilities, but he does seem to like numbers and to have a grasp of them as symbols and quantities. He was able to count along by tens to 100 during this session, and to say what number was missing when his teacher erased one in the sequence. Two of the other boys in the room were distracted because they saw me, a stranger, peering in at them through the window. I smiled and waved, but really, what were they to make of it? It was awkward enough sneaking around as we had. Most schools are sensitive about that kind of thing, and we did attract attention. Luckily Linus didn't see me until we wanted him to, so that part was successful.

His teacher then told everyone that "Linus' mother is here and will be joining us..." and in I came. Linus was immediately distressed, and threw himself onto a pile of cushions so he could express that by kicking and howling for a while. I took a seat and didn't say a word, but I was thinking that was why I hate these visits. There's nothing to see because my child goes all to pieces. Discontinuity is a big thing to autistic kids, and I'm in a place where I don't belong. It throws his little world into shambles.

I have to report that for the first time ever, after only a short tantrum, Linus collected himself and came to his place at the table to do some more work. He did three worksheets with help, but he did them willingly and his answers were generally right the first time. His teacher was helping him, but she was also having to keep a grip on another little boy who constantly hummed around the room like a deflating balloon, sound effects and all. It was the first time my son has been in a classroom and not been the most distractable child there.

I didn't attempt to intervene at any stage, because imposing my authority over the teacher's just causes greater confusion. I just sat and watched. And was pleasantly surprised.

We discussed some of Linus' drawings, which are becoming increasingly of interest. He has taken to drawing in much of his free time, and some he's getting better at it.

When it was time for me to leave, the timing turned out to be ideal...In the past he'd want to come with me, and would again be loudly distressed. This time, he knew that he was going swimming, and nothing would have induced him to come quietly with me and miss out on that. He blew me a kiss and sang "Bye!"

I left feeling pleased. I'm glad that his teacher had again suggested I come. I did see some improvement in his abilities to control himself and participate in class.

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