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Sunday, December 29, 2019

Looking back on the decade

The end of a year, and in this case, the end of a decade, always prompts us to look back.  I've been doing that a great deal lately.

If I look at 10 years ago now, when Janey was 5, we were heading into some very tough years, years in which Janey was very unhappy and often very angry.  It's hard thinking about those years.  I wish I had known then that things would get as much better as they have.  Janey still is sometimes sad, sometimes angry, of course.  We all are.  But so much more of the time, she is happy, or at least contented.

In thinking about this, I've been thinking about causes.  What made those years so hard for Janey?

One of my leading theories is that during the worst years, the most attempts were being made to teach Janey academically.  Via ABA and classroom work and also at home by me, she was spending lots of her time working on things like letters, numbers, writing and reading.

These efforts were not successful.  At times, Janey seemed to learn a little, to know a few letters or numbers.  At one point around 2nd grade, she could write her name.  But these skills would fade away quickly if not constantly practiced, and sometimes, even when they were constantly practiced.

For a lot of kids with autism, this isn't the case.  I have seen myself the amazing things many kids in classes with Janey have learned.  And of course, we didn't know in advance that Janey wasn't going to be one of the academic achievers.  But I think it could have been predicted a bit more than it was.  I think of how extremely frustrating it must have been for Janey to have to work so much on things that simply were not something she could or wanted to learn.  When I think about that, it's no wonder she acted out so much.

How could it have been predicted?  Maybe by an IQ test.  And I will stop right here, right now, and say I know that IQ is not the only way to measure intelligence. In many ways, Janey is very, very smart.  But IQ tests do measure a specific kind of skill.  It can be said that Janey couldn't be tested accurately, but that in itself is telling.

Janey's IQ was tested at least three times, mostly through studies she was in. I was never given a number.  I guess people thought it would upset me, or that it was meaningless.  But I know she scored lower than the 1st percentile.  I know her IQ is very, very low.  Again, and importantly, NOT her intelligence, but her IQ---a specific kind of skill set.

From my understanding, IQ tests were first developed to understand potential, to see what kind of teaching and classes would be helpful.  I think we could have known early on,based on tests that were done, that what Janey needed was not academic work, but work on her life skills, and most especially work on helping her enjoy the things she IS good at.  I understand in a lot of ways why schools do keep trying to teach Janey and others like her academic skills.  A lot of it is No Child Left Behind type thinking.  But a big part of the reason is hard to put into words.  Trying to, and being blunt, it's that our society places a low value on people with low IQs, people whose strengths are not at all academic.  We try very, very hard to turn people like Janey into someone we feel has more value.

And Janey suffered because of this.  It was not just the school, but also us, at home.  We tried to teach her many things that were beyond her.  We tried to get her to talk more than she was able to talk, to be more perfectly able to use the bathroom than she was able to, to understand rules and rituals that were beyond her.

In our case, it was a dramatic event which changed things---when we almost lost Janey to a burst appendix.  It's the big dividing line in our heads, when we realized how truly precious Janey was to us exactly how she is, when we stopped putting value on what we HOPED she would do and started putting value on what she CAN do, on who she is.

For every child with autism, for every child without autism, for every child at all, there is a different path.  Until our society values people like Janey, we probably will keep trying to put all children on the same path.

What will the next decade hold for Janey?  I hope it holds happiness.  I hope Janey is content with her life.  I hope that for all of you, and all your children.

Happy New Year.