Wednesday 29 April 2009

An open book

It's no exaggeration to say that reading has transformed Euan's world. In common with many autistic children, he took to books eagerly, quickly memorising the letter sounds, then combining them to form simple words which were soon supplemented by longer ones. Sometimes I see him visualising words in front of him, writing them in the air as he walks to school. He sees an object and his first thought is to spell it - "newspaper" earned a recent round of applause. But this eagerness has also brought a fundamental problem to the surface, a kind of semantic near-sightedness: Euan struggles to connect the symbol to the meaning.
On a basic level, this means that when reading a picture book, Euan will speed through the text, but fail to absorb the story. He points at the words rather than the items they signify. He likes words for their sound, which is why when his teacher asks him what he had for supper the previous night, he's likely to reply "sausages", even when he ate something else (what must his school make of our diet?). Other favourites are the Dutch words pompoen (pumpkin) and lieveheersbeestje (ladybird).
Is this, really, the underlying problem of autism - that the autistic person can't distinguish appearance from intent or follow chains of meaning (for example, "let's go to the shop" will often trigger a tantrum, but "put your shoes on and come to the shop" is usually accepted)? It might explain why we've had more success in communicating with Euan since we stopped using complex instructions that required him to fill in the blanks and stuck to the core components - so that instead of saying: "Euan, get ready for bed," we now say, "Euan, go upstairs and put your pyjamas on", followed by: "Euan, brush your teeth", "Euan, choose a book to read" and "Euan, get into bed". All of them separate, distinct, and in sequence. When we went to visit my parents in Norfolk last month, we went by train and emphasised the journey itself - which he could understand - rather than the destination, which would have been too vague and abstract in his mind (and ours - it was a seven-hour journey, after all). I produced a pictured book for him on the computer, showing the stages of the journey and what we would do on the way (have lunch, look at cows out of the window) and it helped him enjoy the journey rather than feel anxious at the strange new experience.
Whatever the reason, the written word has been an enabling tool for Euan - and for us. His sketchpad is the most important piece of equipment in our house: it's a learning accessory, a message board, a scheduling tool and a source of entertainment all at once. In the morning we write his school routine on it (breakfast, get dressed, CD, go to school), and at night he takes it to bed with him, writing out words from his books until he falls asleep. It's a literal world in every sense - and therein lies the challenge.