I am a poor liar. So, I might as well confess upfront that this weekend Edward and I have flown far from snow drifts to warm weather. The fact that we needed respite badly does not mean we deserved it. What does”deserve” mean? We all need it.
Owen wholeheartedly agrees with any guilt I have, and he let me know that it was totally unfair. He pointed out that he has missed out on so many trips. It’s true. He was pretty bitter to be left behind, and also anxious that we might not return but leave him there, in the apartment that isn’t home, coping with a Pennsylvanian winter.
His parents are thawing. Uncoiling. Reading about sea turtles. Heartlessly writing in the sunshine by the pool, or snorkeling in the bay.
Even so, the ties that bind humans to each other and to their work are powerful and mysterious forces. We found ourselves standing at the waters edge on a beautiful beach, in lively conversation with a special ed teacher from St Thomas and a speech pathologist who serves the entire Virgin Islands. These dynamic women impressed us, committed to their work, serving an underserved population.
What also impressed me was that hearing the story of Owen’s voice emerging from silence through supported communication delighted them. They rejoiced.
This is not the common response among speech professionals of America. ASHA (the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association) has officially come out against supported communication. Plenty of other bright minds see it as a lie too. Consider Amy Lutz, an author and mother of a young man with profound autism and movement dysfunction. Lutz is a doctoral candidate at UPenn, out to prove that supported communication is a hoax. Her research involves pretending to families to be interested, and under the guise of interest observing them in their homes. Sadly she cannot see the independent movements that supporters feel. Owen started out supported at the hand. Now he can at times write supported at the elbow! But he had to start somewhere.
But even those who honestly believe they accept the premise of the split between Owen’s autistic behaviors and his true intentions, find themselves uncomfortable in that space. Doubt or disbelief do not surprise me. Even at the best of times we humans have a hard time listening to each other. When the motor system, at the mercy of lower brain anxiety, is at war with the upper brain, whether the diagnosis is autism, cerebral palsy, or stroke, it’s a lot harder. If this guy can control some movement, why not all of them? How can you move “unintentionally”? I hope science finds more answers.
Reflecting on inconsistent ability to move body parts, reminds me of a friend of ours. She told us she has first hand experience of what it feels like to be Owen after experiencing a stroke. She named one of her arms “she” because it would sometimes move unbidden, doing its own thing without permission. “Variable control” you could call it.
how do you firmly guard your soda bottle against mounted attack while conversing to (rather than about, or over the head of) the person in front of you, who is grabbing for it? And who shows no visible signs of being interested in anything you are saying?
So much easier to look away or to change the subject or leave, than to stand calmly, as our mason John Reagan did when meeting Owen last month. Owen had been thrashing around the house we are renovating, violently kicking the trashcans, likely because it is disturbing to see this house all torn up, still all torn up, but also because trash cans in general are his nemesis. Whatever their cause, the behaviors are exhausting to both of us, and I proposed saying “hi” to John on the way out the door.
I hardly needed to prompt his arm though, since Owen reached out toward John immediately, arm up and fingers forward in a salute that he uses sometimes with new people. Sort of like E.T. And John stopped smoothing cement, and looked up into Owen’s eyes and smiled and helloed back. His energy seemed completely relaxed. If he was faking he was really good at it, he seemed at peace. I loved that moment; it set me up for a week.
It has to be satisfying to finally let people know some tiny portion of the million thoughts and dreams pent up inside you. But it is clearly also pretty frustrating, like trying to run Niagra Falls through a pin hole. And the irony is that if you can speak, then you have the ability to lie. Apparently discovering that you can tell a story and make waves makes a nice change from powerlessness. Other caregivers of spellers and typers have lots of stories of lying, I discovered. It’s a phenomenon.
I remember the shock of the first time Owen told me a lie, and the greater shock when he told a lie about me. “Why would you do that?” I gasped, “that’s your voice!!”
It is his voice. That’s the point, isn’t it.
And this very autonomy that we sought for our children in the first place may be one part of the explanation for the failure to prove it is happening at all. Maybe it parley explains why the attempts to test supported typers and spellers have created damning, inconclusive, or confusing results. A bright mind that can communicate can be witty, can speak with double entendre. Or sarcasm.
If you can speak, you can lie.
Although, honestly, telling the unvarnished truth can be just as hard to take.
My parents are going to St. John
It is really warm and beautiful there
I want to go too
I would play in the sea
And lie on the beach
I would look at the clouds
And the palm trees
Birds would dive and soar
I can’t go and mom and dad
Are leaving me in the snow
I will be cold here with Trumbull
Just hoping they come back
Please take me with you
But if you don’t
Please come home