TREES HAVE MISTERY IN HOW THEY MAKE MUSIC
THEY MAKE MUSIC GLORIOUSLY
HOW THEY SING
TREES SOUND LIKE MUSICAL NOTES IN MY EARS
1) She hears music in the trees.
Yet when presented with verbal stimuli and asked to identify a tree in an array of four images (for e.g., a cup, banana, duck and tree) during a standardized assessment, she may or not be able to select the tree. Even though she loves markers and uses them every day she may only be able to demonstrate that she knows the function of markers with assistance and prompting by her teacher. In fact, she may engage in behaviors or seem to exhibit decreased attention when tasks become more challenging. Thus, she presents with “extremely low” receptive language skills. Year after year the evaluation scores are the same. The Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test – Fourth Edition may say she cannot label a tree… but now I know, I know, she has a poem about trees dancing in her head.
I’m so glad I know.
It scares me to think of how much I once believed and accepted assumptions about autistic people like my daughter – that she lacked understanding of emotions, that she needed to be spoken to in simple language and have things repeated over and over in hopes she might get it, that if she could not demonstrate that a hat is an item you put on your head then she must not know the function of a hat.
I’m so glad I know that tests, evaluations and experts have their place. But as Emma on Emma’s Hope Book wrote, “There is no test that allows me to show the creative ways in which I learn.” And that, “Believing in the potential of all students is not on any test.”
2) When I began working at home with Rhema, one of our biggest struggles, I thought, was in the area of attention. I wanted to write words on paper and show her how to use a pencil to point to choices on paper. She wanted to scribble intensely or shuffle the papers or erase whatever I wrote or break the pencil tips or bite the pencils, etc. Our learning time started as a tug-of-war over a writing utensil and usually ended with a pencil stab and a paper cut. One day I decided to remove all the pencils and markers from the room. I thought I would command her full attention once the distractions were gone. That of course backfired, too. I soon learned – with Soma’s help – that Rhema was attending all the while she feverishly scribbled on paper. So I let her color and scribble while I taught a lesson. When I asked questions, she learned to spell her answers very well.
In the beginning I was tempted to simplify the lessons. But I found that when we studied age appropriate material she became more engaged and so interested that she paused in her coloring to peer at what I was writing. This, from the child who is visually selective and has always struggled with joint attention.
3) It seems miraculous. Rhema’s ability to spell and share her thoughts after so many years of silence. In fact, I asked her how she learned how to spell (because several people asked me and I didn’t really know.) She said, “I learned how to spell by noticing how letters worked.” She hums and rocks and needs continuous support throughout her day, she rarely makes eye contact and shows almost no emotion on her face. And yet in her words she communicates a depth, maturity, understanding and love that leave me speechless. Nearly every day tears of joy and amazement fill my eyes as she shares more and more with us. It’s unbelievable. And yet totally believable. It’s more than a miracle. She has worked so hard – almost every day for the past year – to be able to spell on stencils (and now type). And now we are blessed to see the fruit of that work.
Many years ago I read a beautiful piece by a father of a special needs child. He described his idea of erring on the side of “overbelieving” in his daughter. As Rhema’s parents, Brandon and I have tried to do that. The past couple months we’ve been able to get to know our girl in a way we could only dream of before… and we’ve discovered that our “overbelieving” was sorely lacking, that we’d been underestimating her all along.
And yet… and still she says to us, “Thank you for believing in me.”
So. All of our expectations have changed. The way we speak to her has changed. The way we envision her future has changed (-Rhema doing college level work someday is no longer outside the realm of possibility). The way we view her learning has changed. Now we know that speech – or the lack of – is not an accurate reflection of her intelligence.
As the father I read once said, ‘She has taught us that everyone needs people who love them enough to overbelieve in them.’
So far she has shown her own funny, amazing, Rhema-way of ultimately exceeding every expectation.