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  • Enjoying a day on the university campus

    Matt had been looking forward to it for weeks.  When I told him I would be teaching a class at my alma mater Matt immediately expressed his desire to go with me.  Of course, Matt wasn’t interested in sitting in on my class.  He was excited about exploring the campus.  Matt loves exploring college campuses.  Radford University is one of his favorites –mostly because he remembers when I was a student there.  He knows the science buildings rather well.  Matt had gone with me several days prior when I signed my contract, paid for parking and did all the little things that come with a new hire.  He had to checkout the bookstore, the fountain, and get a Mountain Dew from one of the many vending machines.  We talked about how different the campus looked after so many years.  New buildings had sprung up in almost every corner, spreading the college to what seemed twice its size. Tom was still home when I started my teaching days for RU.  His new job was still a week or so away (in Montgomery, Alabama) and he was delighted to hang out on campus with Matt while my class was in session. We agreed to meet at the jeep at 3:00pm. After class I walked to the jeep.  It was still a few minutes before 3 and the guys were not there yet.  I put my book-bag in the jeep and glanced around.  I recognized Matt’s hat right away.  Tom and Matt were sitting in the shade at a small patio behind the science building.  As I called for them they looked up and waved.  I knew immediately that their time on campus had been enjoyable – Matt was smiling ear to ear, an excited swagger to his steps meant he was feeling good – really feeling good –about who he is. I love that look. I heard about his purchase of an RU t-shirt from thebookstore, his leisurely ride on his Razor scooter between Young and Porterfield Halls, and his sketches of the campus.  I couldn’t wait to see his sketches.  Matt loves to draw buildings. Each time we take Matt to Virginia Tech he draws a different statue or building.  It’s apparent Matt loves the architecture.  On Radford University’s campus he drew one of the older buildings, the McConnell Library. Tom told me they sat in grass in full sunlight with a straight on view of the library.  Unfortunately, the day was quite warm, rather hot in the full sun and Matt was getting hot. Uncomfortable but determined, his hands flew across the page and within 5-7 minutes had drawn McConnell Library and expressed his need to find some shade. Wow, 5-7 minutes.  I couldn’t draw my first line in that amount of time, much less a rough draft of the whole building! I was amazed – as always – of his artistic ability, and congratulated him on a job well done. I really wish I could convince Matt to take a class – especially an art class.  Alas, Matt is leery of classes.  He hates exams and has an awful fear of failure, though I suspect there is something much deeper going on in his mind.  I see it on his face and in his eyes. I think the un-named fear is that someone will tell him to do it differently.  Matt has his own way of doing everything and although he takes suggestions very well (not that he follows them every time) but he takes criticism – even constructive criticism –poorly.  The best remarks upon improving technique would be seen as insulting. His art is his art.  There is not an artist in the world, regardless of how admired, that could put a grade on his art.  To Matt, all of his art is deserving of an  A+, even the drafts.  If he improves upon a drawing it is because it is requested gently, for reasons other than neatness of the lines or depth of the shading. I can sometimes get Matt to improve a work of art if I request it from a different angle.  I looked at his beautiful rough draft and thought how great it would be if he had done it in pen.  The striking contrast of  black ink on white paper would really make the details stand out.  Yes, I made the request.  His face scrunched – as if I had just insulted his ability. I explained that I wanted one to put on this web site and that it would show up better than the pencil draft.  He thought for a moment and decided my motives were pure enough to do one for me in ink. This is why Matt doesn’t bother with art school.  He fears criticism.  He would need a facilitator for explaining the demands of each course and his facilitator would have to know just how to phrase each comment on technique.  I wish I could be his facilitator, attend his courses and re-phrase each instruction so that Matt would feel at ease, feel that higher education was exciting and enjoyable and not just one demanding chore after another.  I can’t – I have to work to pay the bills like everyone else I know.  But wouldn’t it be great to really help Matt to go down a different road?  An education in art would bring out new renderings of architecture that he could sell, make a living at, and help him to live within his own little niche. Matt has been drawing now for almost 45 minutes.  He didn’t redraw the sketch. Instead, he inked over it, improving this line and that. He took his time, he concentrated on the original piece of art, and true to his nature, never changed the essence of the picture.  The black on white contrast is eye catching.  I knew it would be. I uploaded both to “Matt’s Art” page of this site so you can judge for yourself. As parents we always want the absolute best for our children.  We want their dreams to come true, taking precedence over even our own dreams.  It is more so when the child is autistic.  They need an extra boost, some additional support, and more focus on the future to see their dreams fulfilled. Our other children are in charge of their own futures now, but Matt’s future is quite dependent on me.  So even though Matt will not take another college course this year, there’s always the possibility for next year.  Until then, Matt will continue to acclimate to the college atmosphere as long as I keep encouraging him to come along.  And, I will continue to make gentle suggestions about his art in an attempt to alleviate his fear of criticism.  One day soon it will dawn on me how to persuade him to try a new technique, take up a new medium or subject matter in an attempt to broaden his horizons.  Until then, I will continue to be astounded at who he is now.

  • The signs of progress

    The Kluge center for Children in Charlottesville, Virginia scheduled Matt for periodic visits. They were scheduled about a year apart and the purpose of these visits was to track Matt’s progress in all areas included in a skills check-list for age appropriate skills and behaviors. Matt was still not talking on his first visit back after his initial diagnosis the year before. The therapist tried to get Matt to speak. He did not comply. His only language at that time consisted of “no”, “yes”, “water”, “drink” – Matt was now 4 years old. The window for speech ability was going to close within the next year. His therapist was very concerned. Being able to say a few words is not the same as having speech. Speech is a form of communication and Matt’s communication was still mostly grunts, moans and body language. It was time to put in a back-up plan just in case the next year he remained at his present level of talking. The therapist instructed me on how to use sign-language and had me practice. Signing provided me a new way to communicate and I embraced it. I practice several signs and used them on Matt every day. He didn’t like watching my hands and had no fascination with my gestures. I slowly realized that sign-language was not going to work. Still, I kept at it. I wanted to talk to my son and I really didn’t care if it was through signing or speech. My favorite sign, and the one I used most often, was the one for “I love you”. You extend your thumb, index finger and pinky finger upward while keeping the ring and middle finger bent. Each night at bedtime I kissed Matt and said “I love you” both in words and in signing. I found it difficult to tell whether or not he made the connection. I found out later that he had been watching, listening and learning all along. Although Matt was not doing age appropriate behaviors, most of his skills were higher than average for his age. He had a few skills that were deceptively low-level, like not knowing how to use a key in a lock.  You have to look at the whole grading system to understand why he failed. You see, the lock and key test was sprung on him during his Kluge Center visit. The occupational therapist gave him a key and set the locked box in front of him. She then began timing him. He had never even seen a lock or a key, and he had no curiosity about what was in the box. After several minutes she secretively marked her grade sheet. “Did he fail?” I asked. “Well, he didn’t even attempt to open the box and never showed any curiosity.” She stated back. “Matt can do that trick” I countered, “give me the key.” She politely handed me the key, placating the hysterical parent. “Matt, watch this!” I said directly to Matt as I sat on the floor beside him. Matt watched as I put the key in the hole, turned, open the lock, opened the latch and open the box. I picked up his toy car he had brought with him and placed it in the box. I shut the lid, flipped down the latch, and put the lock back on. “Listen” I said as I clamped the lock down.  We listened.  It produced an audible “click”. Matt watched the whole sequence. His car was now in that box and the box was locked. I handed him the key. Matt put the key in the hole, turned it, open the lock and removed it, flipped the latch and opened the box to reveal his beloved possession still intact. A wonderful smile lit up his face. He was genuinely relieved and now fascinated by the lock and key. “See?” I said to the therapist. She looked at me as if I had just spit on her. “He was not able to do it without you showing him . . . “ she trailed off. She never changed her grade sheet. Matt had low scores from her and high scores from each of the other 3 therapists. This first visit back had really gotten under my skin. I was ready to use the sign language, but I was unwilling to accept that Matt lacked thinking skills. I became aware that people would judge my son on his ability using particular tests that were unintentionally misleading. People would always use his diagnosis to assume Matt was mentally incapable of learning – that is unless I made it a point to teach them differently. It was during this same year that Matt learned the alphabet without anyone knowing. I practiced the alphabet on the glass of the back door – writing in the frost. The first few weeks Matt just scraped frost onto his fingers, fascinated by the cold of the door. At school the class went over the alphabet each morning. Matt would dive under a table and put his hands to his ears as everyone did the alphabet together. His teachers assumed Matt was off in his own little world, refusing to pay attention. His teachers soon found they had made a false assumption. Matt was listening and using his split-second glances at the board to connect the letter with its name. Matt was under the table yes, but he was learning. Within weeks Matt was writing the alphabet in the frost and writing the alphabet on paper in school. His repertoire of words seemed to jump from 4 to 20 - 30 in no time at all. Matt’s brain was healing and he was beginning to show us signs that he was capable of making connections again, both figuratively and literally. He began to speak more and more. I was finally sure – absolutely positive – that he would eventually use sentences to communicate and so, I stopped using sign-language – that is except for “I love you”. To this day, 20 years later, we give the sign for “I love you” whenever we part, whenever we say good-bye, and sometimes just for the heck of it. It has become a symbol with a much deeper meaning. Each of our children knows the sign and has used it, but for Tom, Matt and I, it is part of our everyday language and behavior. A few days ago we again hiked another section of the New River Trail. Each of us had in earbuds listening to our own musical preferences on our MP3 players. I was out ahead and looked back to find Tom taking pictures – he was quite a ways back. Matt looked at me, then at Tom, then back to me and shrugged his shoulders. I held my hand up indicating stop and wait – Matt stopped. He looked again at Tom and back to me with a big smile and flashed me an “I love you”. Not a word needed to be spoken.

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