I’ve long suspected that people with special needs are just a little more human (in all the good ways) than the rest of us.
Tonight was swim lesson night. We signed up for these swim lessons in the midst of a trying season for parenting our Liam. In between speech therapy visits, developmental screenings, IEP meetings, phone calls to see specialists – I signed him up for swim lessons, right along with big sister. A little shred of “normal”. Normal! Yeah!
He sits on the top step of the pool, dipping his toes in and hugging a small ball. The other two kids are down on the bottom step, up to their necks, as the instructor comes over. “Hi friends! Everyone tell me your name again,” she says. Liam’s turn is last. He hugs his ball and flings his foot forward and makes funny sounds with his mouth. “Tell me your name,” she says again. And again. “Use your words, please…” I am sitting on a bench, perched a few feet away. “Liam.” I say for him, and he turns to me and smiles.
“Come down here, Liam, with the other friends,” she says. Liam looks at her suspiciously, and backs further out of the pool. “Use your words – yes or no?” No verbal response, but he keeps backing away. And this happens over and over, for thirty minutes – her trying to entice Liam to come down from the first or second step, all the way to where she is (completely in the pool), by reaching or showing him toys – but never moving towards him. And asking for words. And he backs away every time. Further out of the water.
I wonder if she knows the sensory overload of the water scares him, I think. I wonder why she never moves towards him, I think. At one point, he loses control of his ball, and she grabs it. “Liam, do you want the ball?” He smiles, and signs for “ball”, and reaches out, using his little words, “Ba! Pe!”. “Use your words!” she encourages. He keeps signing, more and more frantically – and trying to say “Ball, please”. I’m on the verge of tears – I get up and tell her that he is, in fact, asking nicely for the ball.
Her words and actions say, “Come down here, friend! Come talk! Come swim like the other kids, come be normal, and do what everyone else is doing! Come down here!”
But I start to notice something – something she doesn’t. While she’s occupied, taking the other kids for floats around the pool, or having them jump in – Liam stays on the steps. But he stops clinging to the ball when she isn’t looking. He starts experimenting – how much water can I get on my skin and it be okay? He starts sitting in the water. Then he stands up, slowly dipping more leg in, using the railing. Then he’s crawling along a step, getting his belly wet. He is teaching himself to tolerate more and more water – at his own pace.
“Come up here and watch me, help me where I am.” His actions say. “See! I can teach this to myself. This may be terrifying, but I know what I need to do. I need to be less sacred to get wet. So I will do this. And then this. Come up here! Look – I have what I need to succeed, right here. I am doing this. I will struggle and fight and I will do this.”
As one of my heroes, Maria Montessori, said, “Follow the child.” And although I’m not finding fault with the instructor – we won’t be back. To help this little boy, we’re going to first follow him up to where he is. “Normal” is overrated, and boring, anyway.