Having FC has completely revolutionized Peter’s curriculum. That includes his religious education. I used to write extremely simplified versions of Bible stories for Peter, but now read directly from the Bible itself, supplemented by standard illustrated children’s versions. Here are some of our conversations about Genesis.
Regarding Genesis 1-3:
Mom: ” What God said to Adam and Eve about the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil?”
Peter: “God said no eat the fruit of the tree poison.”
Mom: “How did Adam feel when he first saw Eve?”
Peter: “I want to get married. You are perfect.”
Mom:” What should Eve have said to the serpent when he asked if God really told her not to eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil?”
Peter: “may not eat it.he juust loves you.”
When we got to the story of Abel and Cain, I discovered Peter understood emotions much better than I realized and could identify an emotion I had never explicitly taught him.
Mom: “Why did Cain kill Abel?”
Peter: “he was jealous”
Mom: “Have you ever felt jealous?”
Peter: “i have not”
Mom: “When Luciano (Peter’s toddler nephew) pushes Mickey (Luciano’s baby brother) off of his mother’s lap, who is feeling jealous?”
I did not even expect Peter to be able to answer my next question which requires perspective taking (from the parent’s point of view) layered upon perspective taking (from Luciano’s point of view).
Mom: “What could we say to Luciano when he’s feeling jealous that might help him?”
Peter: “mom loves you too”
If I hadn’t been the facilitator myself, I would never have believed Peter could think like this. I did not know what Peter would say, and was astounded at how on the mark he is on not only identifying emotions, but on emotional perspective taking, empathy, understanding, and problem solving. He knew it would help Luciano to hear “Mom loves you too.” He even came up with just what Eve should have told herself when wrestling with temptation, “may not eat it.he (meaning God) juust loves you.”
Such expressions from Peter have completely changed the way I view my child. I feel the Lord has really gifted my son with a purity of heart that leads to understanding that may be simple but deep. I feel very humbled at my own limitations and unfair assumptions. All this time I assumed Peter had poor cognitive and emotional understanding, when he was expressively locked in.
There’s a great quote from Martha Leary and Anne Donnellan’s book, “Autism: Sensory-Movement Differences and Diversity”(2012) p.175:
“Someone who has much better inherent communication ability than I do but who has not even taken a close look at my perspective to notice the enormity of the chasm between us tells me that my failure to understand is because I lack empathy.” – Jim, as quoted by L. Cesaroni and W. Garber.
How ironic, and how true! I feel convicted. I had always believed it was scientific thinking to assume the the least complex explanation of an observed phenomenon (Occam’s razor, law of parsimony). Peter did not seem to express empathy, therefore he didn’t have empathy. The truth was, he did have empathy, but could not express it in conventional ways I could perceive. He’s always had big developmental issues with language, sensory integration, processing, and motor planning and initiation. So I should have expected it would take him a lot more effort to perceive my needs and act on them, let alone say words of sympathy. But now looking back, I remember episodes of behavior that would have been very difficult if not impossible to explain if he did not have empathy.
When Luke was only just turned three and Peter just eight, we had a wild adventure in Alaska in which we were getting into canoes upon an icy glacier lake. With great difficulty and coaxing, we had settling Peter into the back of Papa’s canoe. We were trying to get Luke into the back of the guide’s canoe, but Luke was terrified and crying, wanting to sit with Papa. To our total shock and amazement, Peter actually climbed out of his place in Papa’s canoe and transferred himself into the back of the guide’s canoe. We couldn’t believe he had the motor planning to do that, let alone the courage and empathy to do that or initiative, of which at that point in this development, he did little of. Other times, Peter would stoop down and twist his neck around to gaze into his elderly grandpa’s eyes to say good-bye, or allow his baby nephews to climb all over him and grab his earplugs (for noise sensitivity) out with immense patience and tolerance.
All those times I would be amazed, but dismissive, not allowing myself to hope that Peter had an immense capacity for empathy. Now I realize that “flukes” or “unexplained data,” no matter how rarely they occur, may be your only clues, and should deeply challenge your assumptions. Such occurrences warrant steadfast exploration, and in the meantime, the better assumption of more competence than less.
Where human beings are concerned, Occam’s razor can be a dangerous rule, especially when we are so fallible in our observations and perceptions of individuals with major motor challenges, for whom even subtle expression may be immensely effortful. For these individuals, assuming incompetence because one may have missed observing behavior that demonstrated competence, or dismissed those observations because of their rarity, can have devastating consequences, such as belittlement, inappropriate teaching, impoverished curriculams, and hopelessness.
For me as a clinician, the alternative is natural- “First do no harm.” As Leary and Donnellan (2012) suggest, operate on the least harmful assumption. When you’re speaking about your child in front of him, assume he understands what you say, and choose your words accordingly. If you suspect his receptive language is far better than his expressive, try talking more fluently and giving more information, even if you might be “wasting your breath.” Then look for subtle expressions in your child’s behavior that he understood what you said. Instead of assuming “he did it on purpose,” try working off the assumption of a sensory or motor challenge, and try the appropriate accommodation.
I am so grateful for Peter. He is so patient with all of us. I will share more of his comments in blogs to come. I thank the Lord for sending us this treasure who has taught us a whole different way to perceive others and shake up our foundational assumptions.