I am struggling to juggle my weekend life. I’ve fiddled with the times I pick-up and drop-off Dylan and I’ve mulled over solutions but I still don’t seem able to strike a balance. Today was an illustration; I found myself running an hour late for the poetry book launch I had been determined to get to. It would be convenient but wrong of me to blame this on the end of British Summer Time; the clocks went back rather than forward so I was actually running two hours slow this afternoon. I don’t mind, as it happens, because today I had a reason for missing poems that can crack smiles.
The visual schedule which Dylan has been using at his new home has made such a difference to his life. The person in charge of planning activities has patiently tried a variety of formats and approaches, and different mixtures of pictures, symbols and words, and we now seem to have settled on a schedule which Dylan approves of and understands. This morning, while Dylan and I were looking at next week’s schedule together, I let myself feel amazed that only now, after years of using visual communication, are things coming together for him.
I remembered how, shortly after Dylan had been diagnosed as autistic, I attended a group session with a speech and language therapist. We could help our children, we were told, by augmenting our communication with visual aids. One mother said she wouldn’t be signing up for makaton or PECS (Picture Exchange Communication System). Her husband, she told us, was angry at the suggestion; ‘he’s not deaf” the mother explained, gesturing at her newly-diagnosed son.
The father’s worry was that using visual communication would inhibit the development of his son’s speech. The intention behind such systems, however, is the opposite; enriching communication with visual methods (such as objects, pictures and signs) is believed to support the development of verbal communication. Although this didn’t happen for Dylan in any significant way, I never thought of it as doing him any harm either. Over the years, therefore, Dylan has been exposed to a variety of visual resources, particularly while he was at school. It is only recently, however, that they seem to have developed real meaning for him.
Who knows whether it could be Dylan’s new interest in his visual timetable which encouraged him to use spontaneous and communicative speech THREE times this weekend, but it has to be a possibility. When I say ‘spontaneous and communicative’ I mean that there was a real exchange between Dylan and myself, rather than Dylan echoing back speech he had just heard. The exchanges, furthermore, were unsupported by non-verbal communication; there was no object or picture for Dylan to point at, there was just me and Dylan and our words.
The first time was on Friday after we had arrived home for the weekend. I was upstairs with Dylan. I don’t think I expected a response when I asked what he would like to eat and named two options; it was just the talk I sometimes do when we are together so as to keep some language in the air. This time, however, Dylan answered: ‘Pasta’. Now I am quite used to Dylan choosing what he wants to eat and naming it as he does so. However, we are usually in the kitchen with me holding up both options so that Dylan can indicate the one he prefers, and Dylan usually verbalises it only after I have stated the name. On Friday night, the situation was quite different. ‘Oh’ I said. ‘Right. Well I’ll go and put the water on then’. I walked downstairs in a daze.
The next day it was raining. I was up in the attic assessing the clouds when Dylan appeared. I suspect I was thinking aloud rather than addressing Dylan when I observed that the walk and picnic we had planned probably wasn’t going to happen. And I’m pretty sure I was only preparing the ground for later when I suggested two alternative activities. Dylan, however, didn’t hesitate: ‘Museum’, he said (or rather ‘Mee’, which is his word for museum). I turned to look at Dylan then headed for my computer to pull up some photo prompts. ‘Mee’, Dylan said again, ‘Mee’. So it could be this simple? No endless scrolling through unlabelled photo files, looking for the right image: just the charm of a word?
I’d arranged for Dylan to visit from Friday instead of Saturday this weekend because I wanted to go to the poetry reading today. There might, I thought, be a chance of getting Dylan back to the residential home by lunchtime on Sunday if I picked him up earlier than usual.This morning, everything seemed to be going to plan. With a gifted hour on the clock, I told myself, I even had a margin for error; what could possibly go wrong?
I went to remind Dylan that he needed to pack as we were heading back to his residential home. He looked at me as I pointed to his belongings and schedule. Then: ‘Pizza’. I looked at him quizzically. ‘Pizza’ he repeated. Something about his face and voice as he asked (his request modulating slightly upwards) was impossible to resist. ‘For lunch you mean? With me? Well I suppose we could’. When he realised the answer was Yes, Dylan cracked one of his smiles.
Later, as we waited for our pizza, I calculated the time it would take to drive him home and for me to get back for the poetry event; I wasn’t going to make it, I realised. But I would, I told myself, think of this as putting words (rather than pizza) before poems.