Saturday, 27 December 2008

Unwrapping another layer

Christmas can be a good measure of progress in children. This year Euan didn't want to open his presents. That was a step forward from last year, when he didn't want to be in the same room as them. The reason, with hindsight, was simple and a classic piece of autistic logic: we'd talked to Euan about Christmas lunch, cooked the turkey and set the table - and then gone into the living room to open presents. And in his mind he must have thought: they've promised me a slap-up feed, so why are they wasting time in the wrong room tearing paper off strange boxes?
This year Euan was happy to be among the boxes, but took no interest in them until someone else had taken off the wrapping. It was striking that his favourite presents were things already familiar to him: an Elefun game that one of his friends has, and a set of reading books he knows from school.
Euan's progress is erratic, unpredictable, alinear, but it is progress nonetheless. Every step along the way is a minor triumph. What's heartening is his determination to learn things that don't come naturally to him. When he started school it was unimaginable that he could do something as demanding as perform in a drama, yet last Tuesday he "sang his heart out" (Magteld's words) in the school nativity play chorus. In the first rehearsals Euan was distracted by the noise and struggled to follow the script, but as they practised more and the story became familiar, he became more comfortable. As it turned out, rehearsing a play over and over from start to finish played to his strengths: his remarkable memory and his ability to learn in sequences. The same faculty has helped him to learn the alphabet and to read books from cover to cover.
It also characterises his speech. Euan is getting better at asking for what he wants, but still can't really string a sentence together. Here's a conversation we had yesterday:
Euan: "I want some toast". (This is a good sentence, using 'some', an indeterminate quantity, in the right place. It's only in the last few months he's been doing this).
Me: "No, Euan, it's not time for toast. How about a roll?" I hold up the roll to show him.
Euan: "Yay! Roll! 'r', 'r'!" (rolling the r to show he's thinking of how to write the word).
Me: "What do you want on your roll? Cheese?"
Euan: "No, there's no cheese in the house. I need jam."
That last part needs a bit of decoding: what Euan actually meant was: 'I don't want cheese'. He's heard me say "There's no jam/cheese/peanut butter in the house" when we've run out of something, but it seems he understands it to simply mean a wrong choice. It's a classic piece of Euan-speak, taking a set phrase he's heard and trying to apply it, but not quite getting it right. (Using "need" to mean "want" is another example.) This way of using language in chunks makes it hard for him to string a sentence together or hold a conversation, but it still represents a giant leap forward and a huge effort on his part.

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