Today’s post is somewhat of a follow-up to my post on February 27, 2012. That essay, titled, “I’m not an ABA therapist…but I play one on TV” was about teaching SB how to play with toys when he was a toddler. Young children with autism often have no interest in toys, or don’t understand what to do with toys. This is also true of today’s topic, which is books.
Most children love to be read to. They love sitting close to their parent, they love hearing a story, they love looking at the pictures, and most importantly, they love getting their parent’s undivided attention. This is often not true for children with autism. As a toddler, SB had no interest in books and absolutely no desire to be read to. I would try, of course. I would sit next to him and start to read a book, and he would simply get up and walk away. If I tried to hold him onto my lap so that he couldn’t walk away, he would cry and yell and hit me until I let him go. Sometimes I would go to where he was playing (or more likely, stimming with some object that was not even a toy, like the welcome mat by the front door) and I would sit somewhere in the same room and start reading. I tried reading loudly, I tried reading softly, I tried acting out the story with dramatic gestures, but the result was always the same. He paid no attention to me, and would often leave the room before I was finished. But I did this because it made me feel a little bit better to know that I was at least trying to read to him. Maybe, on some level, he was listening. There are many things about my children having autism that make me sad. But I think that the saddest I ever felt was when I wanted to read to my son, and he wanted nothing to do with me.
The very first therapist who worked with SB was called an “Infant Educator,” and was provided by Fairfax County’s Early Intervention Program. Prior to his official autism diagnosis, the county had evaluated him as “Developmentally Delayed” when he was 18 months old, and sent this therapist to come to our house to work with him for one hour each week. She was sort of a speech therapist and occupational therapist all rolled into one, specifically for babies and toddlers. Although she had some good ideas, SB did not make much progress with her, simply because he needed a LOT more intervention than one hour a week at that time. Once he turned 2, he started going to the full-day special ed preschool program offered by our county, and started making progress much more rapidly. However, I have the Infant Educator to thank for opening a door to books.
One afternoon during a session with SB, this therapist began to read aloud a shortened, board book version of a children’s book called Hand, Hand, Fingers, Thumb by Al Perkins and Eric Gurney. The text of this book rhymes and is very repetitive. She read it loudly and rhythmically, and even tapped the pages aggressively with her fingers in rhythm as she said, “Dum ditty dum ditty dum dum dum.” (A phrase which is on almost every page.) SB started to watch her. He even sat down beside her and paid attention to the book for a couple of minutes. It didn’t hold his attention long enough for her to finish the entire book, but since it was the first time I had seen him take an interest in ANY book, I was delighted. He seemed to be intrigued not by stories, but instead by rhymes, rhythms, and repetition. After she left that day, I poured through our bookshelves and pulled out every children’s book that we owned that rhymed.
I started to try to read to him every chance that I could. At first he only liked Hand, Hand, Fingers, Thumb, and wouldn’t listen to anything else. Once it became more familiar to him, he would actually sit and listen to the whole thing. I tried to introduce new books, but even the ones that rhymed were hit and miss. I soon realized that if there was more than one sentence on a page, he lost interest. As much as I love Dr. Seuss, his books were just too wordy for SB at this time. I only had a few books that he seemed to like, so I went to the library to search for more.
I wandered into the children’s section of our local public library, wondering how on earth I was going to find exactly what I was looking for. You can search for books in the database by title, author, or subject. But there is really no way to search for “books that rhyme but don’t have very many words per page,” so I just started digging in the shelves. I probably looked at hundreds of books that day, and completely lost track of time because I was having so much fun. I went home with a stack of books so tall I could barely carry it, and many of them were a hit with SB. His new favorites from that trip were There Once Was a Puffin by Florence Page Jaques and Shari Halpern, Big Fat Hen by Keith Baker, and Chugga-Chugga Choo-Choo by Kevin Lewis and Daniel Kirk. If he seemed to like a book, I immediately went to Amazon and ordered it so that we could have a copy to keep.
Just like “Activity Time” gradually helped SB learn to play with toys, this process seemed to gradually help SB appreciate books. Thankfully, it kind of fed on itself. At first, he would only tolerate the one book. But soon there were 2 or 3 that he would sit and listen to in their entirety. After a month or so, he had about 10 books in his repertoire that he enjoyed. Slowly, over many months, his stamina increased, and he became interested enough to listen to longer books. About 6 months after the first time he showed an interest in Hand, Hand, Fingers, Thumb, I was able to read him Dr. Seuss. Green Eggs and Ham, Fox in Socks, and of course, The Cat in the Hat are some of my favorite titles, and I was thrilled to finally be reading these books to my son.
This was about the time that SB started attending the full-day special ed preschool. He rode a school bus to and from school, and although the teacher sent notes home in his backpack and answered my emails, I generally didn’t have a lot of information about what went on during his day at school. He only had a handful of words, so he couldn’t share anything with me about his day. As the months went by, his repertoire of words increased pretty rapidly, but his language was still somewhat unusual. You could not really have a conversation with him, but he could request a few of his favorite things, such as “milk” or “up.” (As in, pick me up.) He could also name things that he saw, such as “tree” or “ball.” Over time, he was able to put words together and say things like, “I want milk” or “green tree.” One night while we were eating dinner, SB started to recite something in a very sing-song-like manner. “Red bir, red bir, what you see? Boo horse, boo horse, what you see?” His eye contact was still not great at this point in his development, but he was definitely looking at me now. I immediately recognized what he was reciting. It was from Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? by Bill Martin, Jr. and Eric Carle. I knew the book, and I also knew that we did not have it at home. Was my son actually trying to share with me something that he had learned at school? Yes, I believe that he was. Since there was a time when I seriously worried that my child may never learn to speak, I can’t put into words that joy I felt when I realized that, for the first time, he was telling me about his day at school. It’s a moment I’ll never forget.
Several months after that first library trip, I found myself in Bowie, Maryland with about 3 hours to kill before I had to perform a concert with the Air Force Band. I wondered what the heck I was going to do with this huge chunk of time, which was not enough time to go home and come back in Washington, DC traffic. I found a shopping center and went straight for the Borders book store. (Sadly, all Borders retail stores have since gone out of business.) I headed to the children’s section and started browsing. I was having a fantastic time just looking at books. I never left the children’s section, and 3 hours later, I realized that I needed to get something to eat and leave for my concert. Where did the time go? It was on this day that I had an epiphany. I had known for some time that when my 20 years with Air Force Band were up, I wanted to retire and do something completely different, but I hadn’t figured out what. This was the day that I realized how much I love children’s books. I never knew this before I had children of my own. I had about 8 years left of my Air Force career, but on this day I knew that after retiring, I wanted to become an elementary school librarian. (I now have 5 years left. And 2 months. But who’s counting?)
I am thankful to report that AB never had this issue. He has always loved being read to. His favorite stories are anything about Thomas the Train, but he likes other books as well. SB is now 7 and in first grade. And he still struggles with listening to a story, whether I am reading it just to him, or a teacher is reading it to the entire class, or even when he is watching it on TV. I think when too many words are going by too quickly, he just can’t comprehend it all, and loses interest. He still prefers rhyming texts and repetition in his stories. His weakest area in school is reading comprehension. He can sound out all the words in any book you give him, but it is so difficult for him to retell you what happened in a story, even immediately after he finishes reading it. His teachers are working on reading comprehension, his therapists are working on it, and of course, his mom and dad are working on it, too. I am thrilled and grateful that books are a part of his life, and will always do everything I can to help him appreciate books.
Dum ditty dum ditty dum dum dum.