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Pause, Observe, & Listen - Reflection After A Session

During one of my sessions this week, I stumbled upon a beautiful moment. I want to take a moment now to reflect on this and share the lessons this child taught me.

Paul (name changed) is a 6 year old boy full of wonderment. He's communicates primarily through emotional signaling and a handful of primitive signs. I've been working with him for a little over 2 years now. When he started, his single motivator was food; which is often the case for many of my children. We quickly plateaued with "I want more" requesting for chips and during repetitive drill-based activities.

We both hated these sessions. He's attempt to leave several times. I'd become frustrated with how to expand and generalize his "progress". At times, I felt like I was banging my head against the wall. During this time period, I eliminated all food from our sessions. I stopped all drill work. I stepped back and just let him be.

Where did he go?

What did he do?

Did anything else capture his attention?

Over time and with slowly rotating available activities, we discovered his love for movement. Paul was unsteady in climbing, so spinning chairs, swings and other gross motor games weren't the easiest for his to access. I didn't want to help him without his permission (i.e., a simple glance would suffice at this time), so I observed as he first climbed onto a swing.

He was overly cautious, as if he not only didn't trust the swing, but didn't trust his eyes themselves. This gave me big insight into his imitation abilities, but that's another whole post in itself. I just watched as he figured it out himself.

Sure enough he did. And he did it again, and again. Until before long, climbing on the swing was an easy task. But there was one thing he couldn't do by himself; hook the swing up.

When he first saw the swing down, he was devastated. I could empathetically hear though his groans and whines, "Where's my swing! What the heck!". I looked passively where I left it on the floor and he slowly walked over. He stood there, unsure of what to do next.

Over time, we've put together a pattern. The swing is down, he finds it, takes me to it and helps me lift it up and hook it on. He still climbs up slow, although more fluid. I know his sensory system doesn't seem to sync up just right with his body. He's under-reactive to most stimuli and as a result, he's learned to just let things pass him by as it's just too difficult to get the needle to move on his radar. Some kids move slow because they are over-sensitive or over-reactive; but not all. There's only one way to decipher the difference.


Today's session was very similar to many of our most recent sessions. We have our routine, I push when I feel it's appropriate, I give assistance when requested and I stay animated to help his sensory system respond, without being too animated that he completely blocks me out.

I noticed a new behavior today though. It started as a glance and a reach for his favorite book on the shelf. Usually he would jump off the swing, before I could stop it, and then grab whatever caught his eye. Not today. I immediately pounced on an opportunity to show, "Hey, I saw that!" I grabbed the book and said "Want book?" His eyes quickly met mine and I responded, "Here go!"

A few minutes later, his eyes fell upon one of my new dinosaur toys. He focused on it for a few seconds, but didn't reach. I decided to go for it anyway. The dinosaur roared, flew threw the air and tickled his tummy. He chuckled. I grabbed a different dinosaur, made a different sound for his voice, and again flew him through the air for a tummy-attack. Holding the 2 dinosaurs above my head, where ever Paul's eyes landed, that's the dinosaur that swooped and shrieked down. His belly laugh getting louder and louder.

Another few minutes later, Paul's eyes clearly fixated on my bubble turtle. Thank goodness too, because my arms were tired from holding the dinosaurs above my head. I saw a quick flap of his left hand. Sometimes Paul demonstrated the stereotypic "hand flap" often associated with autism but other times it was his attempt at a variety of sign words. Again, I took the shot in the dark, "Bubbles? Sure! Great idea!"

For the last 10 minutes of our session, Paul and I were engaged in a seamlessly silent conversation. I blew a few bubbles, he watched them pop then glanced at me while flapping one hand at his side. At first, I modeled "Bubbles?" but after a while, I stopped this. It felt like noise. I knew he wanted bubbles. He knew what bubbles means. He wasn't going to imitate the word today, especially if I just kept saying it anyway. I only spoke when commenting on an exceptionally big bubble or a clumsy malfunction of the bubble wand.

It was time to go. I almost didn't want it to end. Our conversation was so smooth and fluid, something we've never experienced like that before. But what exactly was different?

I stopped. I observed. I listened before I spoke.

Many of us forget these things, especially in a field so focused on "talking". We think the best way to teach someone to talk is to show them the way. That approach blinds us though. We end up leading, instead of accompanying, and communication is meant to be shared. How will we ever know what someone is thinking if we never pause, observe and listen? And if we can't guess what they're thinking, we surely will never be able to help them communicate it with us.

Our guess could be wrong. They may not be thinking what we've imagined, but that's another whole type of communication opportunity! If we push through, focus on our own agenda, and assume our model is the mold for success, we will fail.

Part of what happened today was because we've laid down a series of patterns over numerous sessions and healed over a few failures from before. Another part of what happened was the realization that thoughts can be seen and not heard; if you just pause, observe and listen.

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