Issue No. 38, May 2012

“Let a joy keep you. Reach out your hands and take it when it runs by.”

~ Carl Sandburg


A Fine (Motor) State of Affairs

Why is camera-shy me leading this column with a photo? It doesn’t look like any kind of momentous event, and the setting is just a neighborhood pho restaurant in Seattle. How could such an ordinary photo be newsworthy?

My dear sister-in-law lunged for her camera because it was a momentous occasion. See the chopsticks? The skill of using them had eluded me all my life. My late brother wielded chopsticks like extensions of his own fingers, and tried with good-humored patience over the years to teach me. “You just put your fingers like this . . . and this,” he would demonstrate, sticks rapping smartly. I’d try, desperately, even two-handedly. The sticks tumbled into the rice every time. Eventually, I gave up trying.

How ironic—how comical—is it that when I finally mastered chopsticks, it was over a bowl of soup? As with many of life’s small, unexpected victories, it happened without fanfare. I picked up a pair and “just did it.” So what finally made it all click (yuk-yuk-yuk) in my aging fingers that should be growing more fumblesome rather than more nimble?

Several years ago, I became alarmed at the decline in my fine motor skills and consciously made more room in my life for them. I began to do all my writing longhand. A casual knitter, I carved out time for it every day and took on more complex patterns. I looked for ways to use my hands more, in the home, in the workplace, in the outdoors, and was rewarded by feeling more connected to my own life, and more patient, more resourceful, more self-sufficient. Forming one letter at a time, one loop at a time, one jar of applesauce at a time, the sensory pleasure of it took over, equal parts serenity and stimulation, and with time and practice, my fine motor deftness returned. The proof is in the picture.

I feel by turns irritated and sad when someone tries to make the case to me that fine motor skills are increasingly unnecessary, that computers, appliances and applications can do all that for us, and good riddance since our kids “aren’t good at” motor skills while many are adept at electronics. What comes from our hands often speaks loudly of our individuality, and does so in tangible and sometimes lasting, time-descendant manner. I don’t want my kids to live a life without these things, and it’s a vital part of what I want them to remember about me.

As summer approaches each year, worry about interrupted learning and possible regression besets many parents of children with autism. I grappled with these real and legitimate fears myself. But I came to understand several things.

  1. Fulfilling the relentless academic and social expectations of the school environment is hard for our kids. For some, it’s no exaggeration to call it combat duty. They need and have earned a break from that brand of pressure.

  2. Learning isn’t the exclusive purvey of the classroom. Much of what children need to learn about living a life meaningful to their individuality isn’t being explored in today’s budget-squeezed, test-obsessed schools. And a great deal of that kind of learning falls into the realm of motor skills—fine motor and gross motor. Much of the teaching and appreciation of those skills went out the door went with art, music and PE, now considered “extras.”

In my October 2011 column “Raising a Quitter,” I described my family’s summers as a time when we encouraged our children to try new experiences and activities with the understanding that we wouldn’t force them to continue or complete something they detested. In this no-pressure spirit of exploration, they tried dozens of fine-motor and gross-motor activities, and learned something about themselves from all of them. The list of their summer learning experiences could fill the rest of this column, but to name a few: drawing, photography, guitar, piano, archaeology, dance, video production, musical theatre, swim team, tennis, biking, rafting, rock-hounding, party-planning (making piñatas, treasure hunt maps, cupcakes, wall art). Every bit of it qualified as “real learning,” the kind that helps a child develop self-confidence and a sense of relevance, awareness of his own interests and strengths, and the discovery that learning can often be exhilarating and expansive rather than tedious and sedentary.

We live in a three-dimensional world, and if we are not teaching our children the joy and opportunity that exist in that fact, we do them a terrible disservice. Computers and apps can be effective learning tools but they can never teach the feel of wet or dry sand through fingers, the smell and the squish of paint on the end of a brush or finger, the taste of hand-cranked ice cream, the warmth of a handmade scarf. Temple Grandin warns that apps can’t teach the basics of the physical world: “Kids need to both feel and see shapes. Only a physical puzzle or a set of blocks can do that.” (Autism Asperger’s Digest, March-April 2012). In her own work environment, she describes architectural errors made by computer-trained people “who have never drawn or built anything . . . one draftsman did not know where the center of a circle was. To understand this requires the motor component of drawing the circle with a compass.”

I’m the first in line to argue that the three-month summer break, relic of a bygone agrarian lifestyle, needs serious re-examination as a 21st century education model. Like many parents, I faced each summer with apprehension about regression, disruption of routine and loss of learning time that seemed critical to my child who struggled so to keep up with the pace of classroom instruction. But I had no power to change that model. So I exercised all the power I had to work within the model. I took full advantage of our Park Bureau’s inclusion services, partnered with other families in situations like ours, sought out programs that welcomed young people whose needs fell offside typical, and granted my kids long stretches of unstructured time for recharging, daydreaming and simply exercising free choice. Looking back, I can’t imagine being without that time away from classrooms, keyboards and screens. The Lego cities Connor spent whole days building, the 114 movies Bryce illustrated in miniature. The hours spent in the hammock swing dreaming up landscapes to sculpt at the sand table and numberless ways to have fun with a hose or a bucket of stones. They learned with their fingers and their limbs and their hearts, and I defy anyone to tell me it wasn’t “real” learning, wasn’t every bit as important as anything they confronted on a standardized academic test.

So I brandish my chopsticks at anyone who tries to tell me that fine motor skills should slip gently into obsolescence. (One of Bryce’s college final exams last term was an in-class handwritten essay.) Few people become proficient at anything without patient, sustained practice. To deny our kids, even if benignly, the opportunities to know the joy that comes with learning to create something with their own hands—be it a sentence, a song, a sandwich or a structure—or in the robust use of their full bodies, is to narrow their lives more than their autism ever will.

© 2012 Ellen Notbohm www.ellennotbohm.com


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This Month in Autism Asperger’s Digest

“Comeback . . . or Setback?”

Ah, the crafty comeback. Who among us has never yearned for the obsidian arrowhead of words in the face of the rude, tiresome or just plain senseless question or remark from strangers, or from relatives whose blood is not thicker than water.  With the last decade’s increase in autism comes an increase in families confronting the unkindness of strangers, and an accompanying glut of advice on formulating comebacks. Societal incivility in general is spreading like fungus, so it’s no surprise that the snappy comeback has veered away from the humorous or thoughtful edge that might actually lead to a shared chuckle, a conversation and a degree of understanding of autism.

I’m uneasy with the proliferation of the snarky of comeback,  which lowers us to the level of our harasser. The satisfaction it may give us is momentary. It’s done nothing to enlighten an uneducated mind. It models for our child a means of sustaining, intensifying and elevating conflict rather than resolving it. It propagates and mirrors the incivility we so deplore when it is directed at our children. If each of us in our own small sphere won’t make the choice to refuse being part of it, how will this ship of crassness ever turn around? Is it easy to keep a civil tongue in your head while those around you cannot or will not, when they harpoon you in your most tender spot? Heck no. But taking the high road in the face of jerks and meddlers becomes the easier choice when we consider that our responses to ignorance and prejudice shape our child’s future, one encounter at a time. . .


Congratulations, Bryce!


Meet me in Amarillo
I’m keynoting the Region 16 Education Service Center’s Autism Conference in Amarillo on June 4, and I will also lead two afternoon round table discussions. At this writing, the conference is sold out and the waiting list closed, but organizers are looking into the possibility of streaming the presentation. Check with the organizers or my Facebook page for updates.

Did you miss my last newsletter? Alike, Not Less: Educating others about what makes our kids different from typically developing children is vital. But it’s only half of the discussion.

I’m booking speaking engagements, readings and book signings for 2012-13. Contact me at emailme@ellennotbohm.com

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©2012 Ellen Notbohm | Third Variation Strategies