My son sat on the couch and was speaking, but I couldn’t follow. I was busy doing something, any of those mundane things that moms seem to do in the kitchen.
I asked, “What did you say?”
He repeated, slowly with deep pauses, “Thank you for the birthday gift.”
“Are you reading?”
“Yes. I have a card from my friend.”
I ran over to him, giving him a well-deserved, yet unwanted hug, “I am so proud of you reading your thank you card!”
My son is seven-years-old, and this is the first time I ever heard him read new reading material, spontaneously and without help! Clearly not at seven-year-old reading benchmarks, we do sit and read practiced books from school, where he can show-off his “reading skills.” I quote his skills because he uses every reading “strategy” that the school teachers endorse – from using picture clues to memorization. Reading is not a leisure activity, even though we sit on the couch together instead of at the kitchen table.
But there he was, on the couch, with no prompting, reading. All weekend long he has been reading everything he can – from finding his favorite ice-cream in the freezer (no pictures on the label) with nearly no assistance to reading (and rereading) the calendar on the kitchen counter.
This success story is one that I want to share with his teachers who work so hard with him on reading. My husband and I fought against school administration, arguing to retain him after his first year of Kindergarten because he didn’t met benchmarks. End of year, he still struggled with identifying letters and phonics, and we didn’t want him surrounded with first graders who were well into advanced sight word lists.
His second year of kindergarten was better, but what was the game-changer was when his IEP's PPT (Planning Placement Team) suggested sending him to an outside evaluation by a nuero-developmental pediatrician. We already knew that he was on the autism spectrum with PDD-NOS, which is as non-specific as you can get. This means that you can’t fit his learning, speech and social skills into any sort of “autism-box” or common stereotypes. You have to know him and the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) and see where he fits, and the puzzle piece is the best metaphor to explain him and PDD.
So when the new evaluation report came in, we saw that he was still diagnosed with autism, yet his struggling speech was more than stuttering and articulation issues. The doctor said that he also had dyspraxia, another neurological condition that affects his brain cortex, which controls his speech and motor skills. I found out in our meeting with this doctor, this is the reason why he will sometimes ask for “salt” when he means grated “cheese” – and even why as a non-verbal toddler learning sign language, he would confuse the hand sign “more” with his other main sign “done.” The doctor recommended different reading and articulation programs. My son’s resource teacher and speech therapist implement these, and his first grade teacher works very closely with them – providing writing samples that illustrate his articulation errors.
I have learned the hard way that finding out what works for a child with special needs is a series of trial and error, but the best starting point is with an expert. If we had begun my son’s schooling with this piece of paper, I can only wonder if we wouldn’t have lost a year.
This reading breakthrough reminds me of the first time he signed on his own. At the time, he was non-verbal, and we were all outside on a warm spring day playing. Above us, in a tree, a bird began singing. I looked at Erik, and he was standing there, under the tree, signing "bird." Unprompted. Spontaneously. An amazing moment even greater because that sign was not one that we learned with birth-to-three therapists, over and over like many others that he still confused. He picked it up from the DVD series “Signing Times” and just applied it. Soon after, he spoke his first word ever. It was the beginning of a new developmental stage – just like this weekend's spontaneous reading – and I am one proud mama.