Friday, April 4, 2008

How Traditional Speech Therapy Can Help the Autistic Child

When my autistic son was not quite four years old, he began weekly speech therapy—an hour each Wednesday afternoon. Often I would pick him up from these appointments and thus I would get to hear the report of how well, or how poorly, the session had gone. Maybe it was my imagination, but I swear that report sounded exactly the same from week to week. The therapist would begin by showing me the same three-ring binder, the tool of her trade, the one stuffed with page after faded page of cartoon-rendered social scenes. From what I could gather, Brian was being made to sit at a table the entire time and listen as the therapist narrated each scenario in increasing detail. Then he would be scored on how well he answered the questions about what he had seen and heard—good points for answers with words, less for gestures, and of course zero points for silence or an inappropriate response. “I couldn’t seem to get his attention today,” she would finally say. “He kept getting distracted by the fan.”

It was summertime when Brian took those sessions, and the therapy office was part of a sprawling complex that of course needed to be cooled; so upon walking out the door an inevitable question would always arise at my side. “Go see air conditioners?”

“Sure, Brian, we can go see air conditioners.”

And off he would careen, steering his first uneasy path to that first buzzing box, and he would approach all these metallic idols with the same intense corner-eyed stare, the tight clasping of hands in front of face, and that scrunching of shoulders back and forth. “Lift you up?” he would ask in front of each one, and I would lift him up to verify the status of the spinning or not yet spinning blades: “It is on, it is off,” he would pronounce with such simple solemnity. And then the counting of air conditioners in each row, and also the litany of all the colors, and finally the pleading near the end to go see at least one more—a full half hour deluge from a chattering autistic storm.

That is how traditional speech therapy can help the autistic child.

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