The Dream of a Common Language

If you’ve been living in a shed (as my old film prof used to say), you may not have heard of the book Wild, by Cheryl Strayed. It came out a couple of years ago, followed quickly by the film version, starting Reese Witherspoon, which is currently making the film festival circuit and will be released to theatres in December. In the book, Strayed recounts her solo hike of 1100 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail in 1995, four years after the death of her mother. Throughout her harrowing journey, Strayed reads and then burns over a dozen books. She burns them to keep the weight down in her pack, a lesson she learns the hard way on the trail. But one book makes the entire trip with her: Adrienne Rich’s poetry collection The Dream of a Common Language.

I was so intrigued by Strayed’s choice to keep that book, despite her already knowing the poems inside it by heart, that I had to get the book myself. If you’re not familiar with Adrienne Rich, I’ll say she was a feminist poet, though she became more feminist as she got older. If you are reading this and went to grad school with me, you probably know a lot more about her than I do. But I do know that the title comes from a line in one of her poems, a line that immediately follows the phrase “the drive to connect.” I feel as if I have been living those two phrases for some time, both in my writing life, and in my life as a mother.

You see, Jack has autism (if you’re just tuning in), and it’s difficult sometimes to connect with him. I often dream of finding a common language, so that he can understand me, so that I can understand him. We are lucky that Jack is quite verbal, at least at home with us. But his means for communicating often involve repetitive phrases and echolalia, where he just repeats something we say, or a line from a story or a song. Often, we have to guess at what he’s trying to tell us. And that’s particularly true when he’s upset.

In a way, it’s like still having an infant: Why is he crying? Is he hungry? Tired? Did he hurt himself? Sometimes he can give us a hint. If he’s injured, for instance, he asks for a napkin. But this morning, when I didn’t understand what he wanted, he head-butted me in the face. His brow bone hit my cheek bone dead on. Not the kind of connection I was trying for. I saw stars. I yelled, “Ow!” And then he got more upset and began to cry. It was not a good start to our day.

So I e-mailed Jack’s teacher for the third time this week, begging for more information. Last Friday, at Jack’s annual IEP meeting, his OT mentioned something about “intensive language programming.” This was at the end of the meeting. We had already discussed his goals for the year, and what accommodations we felt he needed to meet those goals. I felt very much in tune, especially, with Jack’s speech therapist, who was independently doing a lot of the same exercises with him as we are. Jack is pretty high functioning, and his classroom teacher and I had several times discussed the benefits of his being in an “integrated classroom” with “neurotypical” peers, who can challenge him and model for him more typical speech.

So this mention of intensive language programming sort of went over my head at first. It seemed very much at odds with previous conversations. And since we were on our way out the door, and my brain was fried already from nearly two hours of discussion, I dropped it. But the phrase circled through my brain all weekend. On Monday, I finally e-mailed Katie, Jack’s classroom teacher, and asked if she really felt that he needed this intensive therapy. I was expecting her to say, “Oh, no, don’t listen to her.”

But she didn’t. She told me that she was actually considering it for Jack, that it may help him progress more quickly. But, she was quick to add, “That’s a discussion for January, when it’s time to choose a kindergarten.” It was the beginning of the school day, and she was busy, so I cornered the assistant teacher and asked her a few more questions. She answered the best she could, but it’s really not her decision, and she seemed a little careful about how much she told me. She focused, instead, on reassuring me that, no matter what, Jack would be OK. And that reassurance really did help.

But the questions continued to gnaw at me. What, for example, is “intensive language programming,” anyway? What does that look like? Additional therapy after school? Would I be administering it? Or would it basically become his full-time school day? And if so, where? At his current school? At the autism-specialty elementary school across town? So I e-mailed Katie again, asking her for a conference slot this Thursday or Friday. It was already set up as parent-teacher conference time, but I hadn’t signed up for a slot, since I knew we were having his IEP meeting, and I figured we would cover everything then. No one was expecting the ill-timed bomb dropped by the OT.

I didn’t hear back from Katie on Monday, or Tuesday, and when I still hadn’t heard from her by this morning, I was getting mad. So I sent a third e-mail: “I know I’m being a pest, but I really need some clarification, here. What would this other option for Jack involve?” I explained that when she used the phrase “intensive language therapy,” she probably had in her head an image of what that would look like. Because she has learned the lingo. But I haven’t. I don’t know what that means, what that looks like. She may as well be speaking Mandarin.

By 3pm today, there was still no response by e-mail, so when I picked Jack up from school, I cornered Katie. She agreed to a conference time on Friday morning, explaining that she felt it would be better to meet face-to-face than for her to answer my questions by e-mail or on the phone. I know she hadn’t planned to have this conversation at this point, but the can of worms is open now, and I’m not about to pretend they aren’t crawling out.

In the past, though, my face-to-face conversations with Katie have always reassured me that we’re on the same page when it comes to Jack. And I have let her know about the head-butt injury this morning, and that we are totally on board with helping Jack communicate more easily, whatever that takes. So I have hope that with her help, and possibly with the help of this intense therapy, one day, we can sit down with our sweet boy and know that we’re all speaking the same language.

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