Making gains - FamilyEducation

Making gains

June 18,2009
Professor Mom
Aliki McElreath

Aliki is a writer and college English teacher. She lives in North Carolina with her husband, two children (ages seven and ten), a dog, a cat, a rabbit, and too many fish.

I was browsing through my twitter feeds the other day and I saw an update on the autism news feed I follow that read something like "elementary school kid makes great gains". I'm not one for chatting via twitter-I always feel like I've stepped into an overwhelmingly crowded room there--but I really like checking up on all the odds and ends that come through my feeds. When I clicked over to the link I found it was, as I suspected, another uplifting article about a child with an autism spectrum disorder who was thriving under interventions and making great headway in school. While the article was uplifting on its own, what I really smiled the most about was how perfectly that headline could go slapped on top of a list of all the gains L.'s been making so far this summer. For most parents, "making gains" is something their kids do constantly--sometimes with a little work, sometimes with no work at all. They go to school, they make friends, they learn from their mistakes, they try new things--or, if they don't, they will tell you why they won't. They happily head off to the movies, or on play dates; they sleep at night. For parents of a child with autism--no matter how mild, moderate, or severe, the term "making gains" takes on a whole new meaning and added weight. It could be used to apply to something as simple as the child's mastery of basic habits, or to describe big developmental leaps that in other children occurred years before. Summer is usually a touch-and-go time for us--well, for L. in particular. It's usually a time of some gains, because when he's out of school, and untouched by the daily stressors of the school environment, the expectations he doesn't understand and doesn't want to follow, out from under the work he has no motivation to complete because he deems it completely uninteresting, he feels safer, and is able to let go a little of other sometimes crippling inhibitions. It's also a time of difficulty, as well. Some summers we take many steps forward, and only a few steps back; other summers we backslide mostly (like last summer), and scramble every day to stick a huge band aid on it all and figure out how to make it better. This summer we're holding our breaths. I am bursting with pride that L. agreed, two weeks ago, to join the swim team at our neighborhood pool. We knew he wanted to try it--we just knew it. Ever since the pool opened in May we have watched him "test" himself. When he found out last summer that kids in his age group would have to swim laps the whole length of the pool he shrank back. "I can't do that," he said. And that was it: the reason not to join. But this summer we watched him swim laps--back and forth, on his own, testing himself. He taught himself stroke after stroke, until he had mastered the backstroke, the breaststroke, and a haphazard freestyle. "You can do laps now!" We told him. "You can join the team!" But he wasn't convinced. One afternoon, after the first week of swim practice for his sister and the other kids, he watched the coach lead the 7 and 8 year olds to the high dive. "I can't join the team," he told us. "I can't do the high dive." We assured him that jumping from the high dive was NOT a requirement, but we knew he had decided in his mind that it was. The next day, though, with scarcely a discussion about it, and after studying some basics of diving the night before in his visual dictionary, he clambered up the tall metal ladder and plunged off the end of the board. "You can do it!" We told him, "you can join!" And you know what? He did. Maybe next summer will be different. Maybe he'll decide swimming isn't for him, after all. But for now I am so grateful that he's found himself in the water. In between races and practice swims he is conspicuously different--he wanders off to the far ends of the pool deck to read, or study the pool filtration pumps. He doesn't cheer on his team mates, or seem to care about scores or times or the order of events. But when it's his turn to swim he hurls himself into the water with graceful gusto. On land he trips over his own feet, and avoids the messy, physical, sports at recess and P.E; in the water he's fast and capable, and beautiful to watch. In the water I know--for the first time in his life--he feels truly powerful and happy and good about himself. On Tuesday night Scott and I watched him from the pool deck at the first swim meet--he swam in five events, and even "swam up" in two of the relays, into the 9 and 10 year old group. And even if all the other parents there that night saw nothing unusual at all in that kid gliding through the water, Scott and I saw something utterly amazing. Gains