In September 2012, we took 2 children into our programme that seemed to have such challenging issues, that we told their anxious families that we could only accept them for a probation period. Both children – a five year old boy on the autism spectrum, and a five year old girl with a severe intellectual disability – were locked in their own worlds and paid little heed to what was going on around them.
The boy would consistently and merrily ransack any room that he entered, and didn’t speak. The little girl constantly chattered an internal monologue from her own head that could not be interrupted by any outside input. It seemed impossible to get them to engage and we had no idea what we could do to get these children to respond to us, but for the sake of their families, we decided to try.
This post is being written at the beginning of February 2013 and the children have been in the programme for 5 months. The change in them is dramatic. The little boy is talking, and the little girl can have meaningful exchanges. Both of them can count up to twenty and are starting to spell simple words. Their behaviour has altered and they both follow the routine of the class (the little boy has, in fact, become something of a teacher’s pet).
An incident occurred last week which astounded us and made us realise how far they had come.
The incident was very simple and it is hard to make it sound as significant as it felt, for it involves only matching different coloured pieces of Lego with the same coloured piece of Lego in chalk-drawn circles on the floor. Some of the children in the class found this hard but the two children in question had no trouble with it. So when it was his turn again, his teacher gave the boy a piece of Lego that was an entirely different shade than any that had been used before. It was olive green. He assessed it for a few seconds, and then placed it outside of any circle, but in-between the circles of yellow and bright green Lego pieces. It was amazing problem solving and we all cheered like he was a rock star. The little girl, seeing that he had set up a place for other colours, placed her strange-coloured Lego piece there, too. When she returned to her chair, the little boy gave her a congratulatory pat on the back and a kiss on the head. People with autism can often have trouble empathising with other people’s feelings, so again, for us, the observers, this was another rock star moment.
No matter how unlikely it may seem, all children have potential. We just have to find ways to unlock it.