A Morning with An Autistic Young Adult: Reading
by Aurora Harris c. 2009
June 11, 2009 9:30 a.m.
I have been awake since 6:00 a.m. While waiting for the bus to pick up my grandnephew, I asked him to read the morning newspaper out loud. As I listened to him read word by word, without fluency, it dawned on me that perhaps part of his lack of fluency was due to being taught how to sight read. As I continued listening to him, I remembered sitting in one of his elementary school classes, with the teacher standing in front of a list of words, pointing at each word, saying the word, and having the students repeat what they heard. After this recollection, the next thoughts I had related to Detroit's high illiteracy rate.
I thought about the newspaper reports in the past few months regarding the poor state of education in Detroit, the students' low test scores, and that up to half of the city's population is functionally illiterate. I looked at my grandnephew, who is a "high functioning autistic," in his twenties, and in a "transitional school setting."
After he read, I asked him if he knew what certain words meant. He lowered his head and said, "I don't know."
"How in the heIl can he get through life just repeating words without knowing what they mean?" is what I thought. Then suddenly, I said to him, "No. You will not go to summer school. I will teach you myself." He looked at me and said, "O.K."
Suddenly, all of the years that I've had him, since he was three years old, flooded my mind. From age three to now, I have been his guardian and advocate. I remembered seeing his early years of odd behaviors like rocking, hitting himself, tantrums, unstoppable crying fits, and, collecting toys and stacking them. I remembered my mother, who was his great grandmother, carrying him on her hip from room to room, as a way to quiet him down. I remember telling my mother and father, "I'm going to find out how we can help him." After I wrote down the behaviors I saw, I drove to Wayne State University and sat down at one of the computers that were set up for community access. As I typed the behaviors into the search engine, each behavior took me to a page concerning Autism or Aspergers. I remember feeling relieved that I had something, some research that I could take to my parents and doctors.
1993. In 1993, I began my long and stress filled journey of caring for an autistic child. By the time he was enrolled in school, I had amassed a ton of research from every available web site concerning Autism and Asperger autism. I was determined to teach him any way I could. I wasn't a teacher or even interested in teaching at the time. I was an unemployed, overworked telecommunications worker with carpal tunnel syndrome in both hands, with pain up to my neck on both sides. At that time, with hands in splints, I tapped on the keys of a typewriter or computer keyboard with two pencils turned upside down, so the erasers wouldn't damage the keys. It seemed that the moment I decided to be a poet, I was faced with another challenge. However, in spite of my own inability to hold a pen and physically write due to the splints and pain, I never thought, at any time, that I couldn't help my grandnephew or that he was not teachable.
After he was enrolled in middle school, I remembered the long battle to get him diagnosed as autistic because he had been misdiagnosed as "Learning disabled." The battle was long and hard...I don't have enough time to go into what it took to coordinate three or four schools' IEP's (Individual Education Plans) that were found collecting dust on a desk in an area office, and bring the administrators, social workers, and school psychologists together to get them to agree with what I had been saying all along: "The child is autistic."
As an educator looking back, I can state that there are studies out there, concerning the misdiagnosis of minority students and the late diagnosis and effects on minority children, but my case was different. I came into the school system with all of the research and symptoms from my investigation. After years of being told, "We can't determine what he has, he has too many behaviors," all I could say was, " He copies people. He studies people. He repeats what you say word for word as an answer to a question. He sounds like a robot. He collects things. He can shake a bottle of water and watch it for hours. He has echolalia," until he became "older" and they could "re-test him."
"How did I learn to read?" I asked myself. I remembered that I learned how to read at home, before I was enrolled in elementary school... that I enjoyed pronouncing words, saying them, listening to family members read out loud...sitting at the window seat or at the dining room table in our dining room with either my father, grandfather, or mother holding my hand and teaching me how to write...the pads of wide, green, lined paper my parents brought home for me to write on...the alphabet books in Spanish and English, Dr. Seuss books, the science encyclopedias, the Filipino magazines that were in Tagalog and English that relatives sent us, the hundreds of other books and magazines I was given to read silently and out loud...the heavy, giant dictionary that had a world of knowledge from writing business letters to learning about science, in the back of it. I remember saying and writing, "ventana, manzanas, caballo, bintana, mansanas, kabayo, window, apples, horse." I remembered why it was easy for me to learn Spanish, Tagalog and English. My grandfather lived with us spoke and Castilian Spanish, Tagalog, and Ilocano with my mother and other relatives. He had been a Spanish Teacher who taught at Fort Wayne. My father spoke English, a little Tagalog, Italian and Polish. My grandmother on my father's side was an English teacher. I lived in a multillingual home where speaking different languages, reading, and learning were normal, and, expected. Today, there is only me to help my grandnephew until I find assistance.
The Detroit Public Schools and The Mayor are pushing for students to read. The commercials of little children are great, but do they have reading services for my autistic grandnephew who is in transition? Who nows how to see and say but don't know what the words mean?
Mind you, I do not have a teaching certificate. I do not know all of the theory or technical vocabulary that goes into the science of reading. However, I do have a Masters degree in Social Foundations of Education, I know how to write, and I know how to read.
So, today, I will start like I did before. Grassroots style. I will go on the Internet and list reading resources for parents and caretakers like myself, who are unemployed, lack the funds to pay for reading tutors, or, any tutoring service, and, do not possess a K-12 teaching certificate. Hopefully, folks will pass this blog entry around or copy it for those who don't have access to computers, so other resources can be exchanged.
Later, when my grandnephew gets home from school, I will teach him, the way I was taught: 1. Look at the word. 2. Say/ sound the word out. 3. Write and read the words, find and write the definitions, and, memorize them. 4. Write the word in a sentence.
Resources for parents and teachers ( I will post more later):
Teaching Students with Autistic Spectrum Disorders to Read (in Google books)
Reading Rockets: Curriculum and Instruction
Reading Rockets: Fluency