My son is 5 years and eight months old now. He was diagnosed with autism when he was almost 2, and since then has grown into a clever, chatty, lovable child who loves people and is loyal to his friends. In three weeks time, he and I are going to experience a big change in our lives: Tal is leaving the special education system and is going to be fully integrated in a regular preschool. We are both anxious and excited about it, maybe the mother more so than the child.
Tal has come a long way since he was 2. He's learned a lot, but so have I. Some of the lessons I picked up along the way are stunningly valuable. These lessons are one of the reasons I wanted to write this blog. Some of them are huge life-changing experiences, and others tiny, eye-opening moments.
At 2, Tal was a big, fair-haired and angel-faced toddler who didn't speak, but could understand a lot. He learned the Hebrew Alef-Bet and the English ABCs all by himself from a book my mother used to read to him about once a week, and from the Fisher Price website, where he played online games for babies a few minutes at a time.
Clever as he was, he couldn't point to things that he wanted, like kids do when they're between 12-18 months old. After a few months in the first special daycare, he started to point. The staff there taught him a few sign language gestures to ask for things. They also started him on PECS, or "picture exchange communication system," which he learned in a heartbeat. PECS is a method in which a child who cannot speak has to give a picture and in exchange, he or she can receive what they asked for. This is the essence of communication -- an exchange of messages.
Tal's worn out PECS book
One afternoon, my mother came over to visit. We lived on the second floor of an apartment building in the city. Under our south-facing porch there was a big mulberry tree. In the over 12 years that I have lived there, it never bore fruit, but it had lovely foliage in the summer. My mom was sitting on the porch with Tal, and in an effort to amuse him, she picked a leaf from the tree and let it fall down. They did it a few times and watched the falling leaves until I asked her to spare the poor tree.
A few days later, I was again on the porch, just before sundown. Tal pointed to the tree and made a gesture he invented, "want." I said, "do you want me to pick a leaf?"
"Yes," he gestured. Since he couldn't nod, he would put both his hands over the top of his head to say yes.
I picked a leaf and said, "But just the one," and I let it fall. Tal followed it with his eyes, delighted at the lovely spiraling movement. And then he gestured, "More."
I said, "No, Tal, we said one."
Tal shook his head. For some strange reason, and I think every parent in the world would know what I'm talking about, children have a much easier time learning how to say no than yes.
"How many?" I asked.
Tal put up five fingers in the air, smiling.
I said, "uh uh, just two." I used two fingers to show him -- his therapists told me to sign, although he could hear and understand perfectly well without it.
Tal put up three fingers.
I sighed and said, "Okay." I was never good with this haggling business, despite having shopped in HaCarmel market in downtown Tel Aviv once a week throughout my childhood. But Tal, I smugly noted, was quite adept in this art. I picked two more leaves and let them drop one after the other. The sun was setting, and my son and I bade it farewell 'til morning and went inside the house.
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