Parents and teachers of special needs children try to catch them up to standards hard to reach for typical children. Every Wednesday afternoon, I help students with homework. Second graders parse parts of speech. Third graders write rough drafts, edit, and revise stories. A bright third grader guesses at multiple-choice math questions. This child mispronounces radius, diameter, and circumference, has no clue of what they mean, and muddles through improper fractions when denominators and numerators are still riddles. My heart breaks to hear “I wish I could cheat” and “I’m so stupid.”
Such unreasonable standards crush atypical learners and their teachers. A life of therapies burden busy schedules. Delayed children need Mason’s ideas about the preschool years even more than their peers. “A great deal has been said lately about the danger of overpressure, of requiring too much mental work from a child of tender years. The danger exists; but lies, not in giving the child too much, but in giving him the wrong thing to do, the sort of work for which the present state of his mental development does not fit him.” (Volume 1, pages 66-67)
We give toddlers special services when they should be playing in the fresh air. The outdoor life is an antidote to the culture of therapy: physical, occupational, sensory integration, social skills, speech, and more. Dressing for romps, sand and water play and picking up tiny treasures target fine motor skills. Children climb trees, leap over sticks and stones, walk up and down hills, and swing and twirl outside. Nature’s gym develops gross motor skills and integrates touch, joint movement, and balance. On walks and outings, children meet all sorts of people, not just overstimulating peers. Little chats about what they did offer rich content and context to build language. Reciting nursery rhymes and poetry makes articulation fun.
The goal of early intervention for children with autism is success in a typical classroom. Our focus on speech and academics glosses over nonverbal communication. Mason knew its power for people talk with their eyes, hands, and bodies too. She relied on hopeful looks, warm voices, indirect hints, and “various little devices”–not just commands. She guided little ones to help themselves through calm inspiration. They could learn to wash carefully when not scrubbed, poked, and prodded into seeing it as torture. She depicted the relaxed, mindful parenting style taught in a new program that helps these children think for themselves.
Mason let incidental learning in the real world lay the groundwork for academics. Children picked up their colors in talking about flowers and choosing outfits. They sorted and matched by setting the table and folding socks. Nature study taught them words for weather, calendar, shape, and size. Shopping and baking built math skills among other things. She encouraged interest in the alphabet, writing, and reading with a casual atmosphere of books, letters, puzzles, and paper. She resisted the urge to push young children beyond their attention span. She demanded no formal lessons of children under the age of six and those not ready developmentally.
Mason believed the “dead wall of a systemized education” hindered the most delayed child more than the disability itself. She picked this quote from Annie Sullivan’s description of Helen Keller’s program, “If the child is left to himself he will think more and better, if less showily. Let him go and come freely, let him touch real things, and combine his impressions for himself, instead of sitting indoors at a little round table, while a sweet-voiced teacher suggests that he build a stone wall with his wooden blocks, or make a rainbow out of strips of coloured paper, plant straw trees in bead flower-pots. Such teaching fills the mind with artificial associations that must be got rid of before the child can develop independent ideas out of actual experiences.” (Volume 1, 196)
I used to wonder why Helen Keller picked up language so quickly when she had been cut off from words for four critical years of her life. She learned many things by following her mother around the house, doing chores. Her father led her from vine to vine and tree to tree while she sampled treasures from their ample garden. Little Helen even knew how to fold and put away clothes. She was quite resourceful in developing her own sign language and paid careful attention to events in her home. She knew how to lock people in the pantry for her own amusement. Outdoors, she fed the poultry, hunted eggs, milked cows, and hung around the barn and stable. Except for words, Helen experienced everything she needed to know through the outdoor life and household ways.
Helen may have been in a dark, silent prison, but her family gave her the freedom to live. When Annie Sullivan came into her life, Helen already knew much. She knew how to think. When she realized that things had names, the world bloomed for her like it never had before.
© Tammy Glaser 2011