Sunday, 18 January 2009

Look and learn

Euan is sitting at the breakfast table when he suddenly points out of the window, a confident grin on his face, and declares: "Look! A chimney!" I look and, sure enough, he's pointing at the roof of a house in the row behind ours.
Now, the chimney was there long before we moved into the house. Euan has sat in the same spot at the breakfast table on hundreds of occasions and looked out of the window. Yet until now he's never drawn attention to the chimney, though he must have seen it. So why the sudden interest?
We've had a new window on to Euan's thought processes recently: learning to read. As I mentioned in an earlier entry, he's taken to spelling out the names of things as he sees them. He'll find me cooking in the kitchen and point to the pan, saying: "p-a-n". Sometimes he'll even try to spell a word he's never seen written down (and, since he has the misfortune in this regard to be a native speaker of English, get bogged down in by the quicksand of non-phonetic spelling). One of his favourite books is a dictionary which contains a picture of a house, surrounded by smaller pictures labelling the different parts. Hence the sudden affinity for chimneys.
What this has revealed to us is that Euan is a highly visual learner, and, given the right stimuli, a remarkably quick one. He learned the alphabet by setting down the magnetic fridge letters on the table in sequence, from a to z, until he knew it by heart. He memorises books from cover to cover, first learning the story through the pictures, then going over the words again and again until he can read them fluently off the page. Sentences are still a challenge for him, but he has a genuine love of words.
When Euan was younger we thought he might have an aptitude for maths, since he was able to read off three-digit numbers from the age of three. But he's never progressed to doing calculations and it seems he just loves recognising and reading the symbols. As I'm generally wary of the myth that autistic people are closet geniuses, I was almost relieved to discover this. It's a faculty we've exploited to make shopping trips easier, by writing out visual shopping lists with pictures of all the items. This has created its own problems by exposing my meagre artistic ability: I'd never thought it could be so difficult to draw an orange. And, as with most things where Euan's concerned, it was a trial-and-error process: the first time I took him shopping with a list, he enthusiastically went round ticking off all the items. The next day I made a new list, but forgot to throw the previous day's list away. Euan found it and insisted on shopping with the list he knew, rather than the one I'd made up for that day. So we ended up taking both, and buying enough bread and milk to last us through a minor conflict.

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