Thursday, October 16, 2008

An oldie: The Young Man on the Bicycle

I wrote this several years ago--it's an oldie, and I'll post it here in case someone has not yet read it. It sums up part of my journey.

The Man on the Bicycle
by Penny Ray

I was at a busy intersection at rush hour, and I was the driver of the first car stopped at a red light in a left-turn lane. This intersection is always crazy, with people turning right on red from two different locations at the intersection. And drivers ignore red lights, and instead try to push two or three (or more!) cars past the red light in each cycle.

A driver in my left-turn position, can't immediately hit the gas pedal when the green turn arrow appears. Rigidly following rules and laws (The law is go on green, stop on red) don't apply here, where other drivers are ignoring the law and pushing through their red lights and ruining my “green means go” opportunity. I must try to determine the intentions of the other drivers by their speed as their side of the light shifts to yellow.

On this day at the chaotic intersection, my wait for a green turn arrow is complicated by something unexpected. A young man on a bicycle approached on the sidewalk to my right, and his bicycle wheels are pointed to cross in the street directly in front of me.

I watched him as he looked around in all directions, far up the road ahead to see how long the line of traffic turning into his projected path is. He looked at the line of cars turning directly in front of him. The button to prompt the light to change doesn’t seem to work when he presses it. He scanned the situation in all directions again, saw a possible window of opportunity, and he put one foot on a pedal, leaned forward in his seat. I knew that he was preparing to take a chance against the "don't walk" sign. Finally, he looked right at me; we made mindful, meaningful "eye contact" for a moment (except, it wasn't just "eye contact"). He knew that I saw him. That's important, because his safety is at stake. He doesn't want me turning left on my green arrow if he makes a dash across the road in front of me at that same time. In that brief moment, where our eyes touched, we shared an experience. He needed to know that I saw him, needed to know that I recognized his communicative intent to cross that street, because when our eyes touched, I acknowledged that I knew he might try to cross in front of me without regard to the "don't walk" signal.

Watching him, silently, from my car, I "read" all sorts of communicative intent in this young man's body language. We did not have a conversation with spoken words, but I clearly saw meaning in his movements; I clearly saw his intentions, and he saw mine: His body language told me that he knew the intersection is dangerously busy; that he was going to try to cross in front of me; and that he needed to know that I saw him. He knew that I wanted to turn left when I saw the green arrow.

(Interestingly, my two minutes were spent shifting attention between the young man and the traffic lights. I did not consciously think about the experience we shared until after I returned home and sat down to write about it. I didn’t encode the color of his bicycle or his clothing in my memory. Our children on the autism spectrum have difficulty with both attention shifting, which is also a piece of non-verbal communication and experience sharing, and they tend to overemphasize unimportant elements of communication.)

Ultimately, traffic never paused long enough for the young man to cross the street while I was there, and I made my left turn and went on my way. A lot of experience sharing, meaning making happened in a couple of minutes. And then he and I moved on to meet new meaning to make, new situations to experience and navigate in dynamic ways.

Before RDI®, we taught our child that communication is about things spoken: words, talk, length of utterance, mands, tacts. Until RDI®, I never thought about communication being described as experience sharing or meaning making. One of the core deficits of autism is experience sharing. I never considered just how much experience sharing we do that is non-verbal, that happens as we don’t consciously think about it as we’re processing it. But now, having a child with autism and learning about relationship development, I’m paying attention to aspects of communication I’ve previously taken for granted. And nowhere is this new awareness spotlighted like it is when I am behind the wheel of a car, where I richly share experiences with other drivers, but without the benefit of “talk”.

I think back to when we began intervening before she was two years old, and wonder, "What was I thinking?" When we began intervening at home with our child, one of the very first steps was "Look at me." for "eye contact". And then we did one of two bizarre things: We prompted her to complete a gross motor imitation (“Do this!”), or we gave her a visual field of three answers, asked her a question, and, to keep the data “clean”, we refused to look at the correct response with our faces, teaching her a) that communication is about looking and copying and b) that human faces do not share information.

How we must have confused my child. What was the point of teaching "Look at me?" I wonder, if we were going to discourage looking at me in situations where our child could actually practice referencing for communicative intent, for information? Look at me; then don’t look at me! Talk about a mixed message! And if non-verbal back-and-forth interactions are a prototype for dialogue and conversation, then is “Look at me” + “Do this” a prototype for echolalia?

We gave her words, phrases, sentences, skills upon skills, all without giving her any inkling of communication outside the one channel of talk. Often we told her, “GOOD JOB LOOKING!” as if eye contact and “looking” is an end in itself, and again, we reinforced that communication is not about experience sharing, not about meaning making, not about recognizing errors and breakdowns and making repairs. We failed to show her that there is meaning and communication in the direction a person faces when he speaks, that there is meaning to read from the eyes, faces, hands, gestures, pitch, volume and tone of voices of others.

We wondered why we saw so much echolalia in our daughter; wondered why she recalled bits and pieces of information that were so drastically different from the rest of us, like the color of a single object we’d seen instead of a broader memory of the fun and excitement in the experience we’d shared together. Could we possibly have taught her to communicate and encode experiences in the way she was demonstrating? (unfortunately, the answer to that is a disappointing "yes") And if so, could we give her a “do-over” in those areas and the other core deficit areas? The answer is an exciting YES!

I now know that an early part of typical infant and toddler emotional and social development is to practice what to do in uncertainty, which is watching Mom's and Dad's faces for information, clues, signals, experience sharing, meaning making which leads to active participation in interaction at a non-verbal level. It’s recognizing errors and breakdowns and making repairs. Part of a mind is understanding the perspective of another person based upon where that person looks and glances, based upon his actions; it's seeing the quiet wink that says "I love you" or a slight movement of exasperation with your eyes that lets me know you think the singers entertaining us at the fancy dinner are, well, horrible. Another part of a mind is understanding my half of that interaction.

The Michigan Department of Education words it this way in the English Language Arts Vision Statement, from Standard 7. Skills and Processes: Effective communication depends upon our ability to recognize when attempts to construct and convey meaning work well and when they have broken down. We must monitor, reflect, and adjust our communication processes for clarity, correctness, purpose, and audience. We need multiple strategies for constructing and conveying meaning in written, spoken and visual texts. Our literacy development depends upon on-going, personal-self-regulated assessment.

Dr. Gutstein defines communication “…as the desire to determine the relationship between what is in your mind and what is in my mind…”. Before RDI®, I always assumed that communication is mostly about spoken words and rules of grammar, syntax, social rules. I realized at that intersection that I use a lot of meaning making, experience sharing that has nothing to do with talking, words, length of utterance, social skills, and all in a matter of a minute or two. The many channels of communication serve me for this dynamic moment, and are then forgotten as I encounter a new moment to appraise, a new experience to share. We want nothing less for our children.

A relationship approach has made an incredible difference, and has given me new hope. I love moments when I’m searching in the pantry for something and my daughter walks into the kitchen and asks, “Mom, what are you looking for?” or when I’m getting ready to go somewhere, and she asks, “Mom, where are you going?” She’s seeing intent in my actions, seeing my perspective!

When the eyes of the young man on the bicycle met mine, we were not engaging in social skills, and we were not just making eye contact for the sake of making eye contact. A rote rule from a social skills course would fall short in this situation. We did not have a "Look at me!" moment. Instead, we "danced" briefly; we exchanged important meaning non-verbally, with gestures and facial expression and body language, which, at that moment, impacted his safety.

I want all of my children to experience that kind of "dancing", including my child on the autism spectrum, an active participant with others and herself, at all levels, and RDI® is providing the "do-over" pathway, teaching us to dance.

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