A tunnel and the light at the end of it
by Julie Schneider
My children are mere elementary schoolers but we have come to the light at the end of a tunnel. It is among the first tunnels we've traversed as a family and deserves a small celebration. It is the story of how a gifted child learned to read..."late."
The nursery was dim, lit only by the soft glow of a small table lamp. The heirloom rocking chair, one generations of Mama-Schneiders sat in with their babies, supported me entirely. My infant son sat in my lap while I read to him. It was a nightly routine I began early because I, myself, am a reader. I fully intended to introduce him to the wonderful world of books.
A handful of boardbooks were stacked nearby and I had a habit of reading them in the same order. That evening I thought I should let my son choose. So after reading the first book I set it down and picked up two more and asked, "which one next?" My son grabbed the one that had historically been next. I was surprised and wondered if he had just aced his first quiz, choosing it because he recognized the pattern. We enjoyed the stories in turn before he turned to fall asleep in my arms.
That first year as a mother was truly amazing. Like mothers do, I watched my son learn to roll over, crawl, and walk. I attended to his needs - responding when he cried, feeding him, and changing diapers. I especially enjoyed celebrating his discoveries - the expression on his face when he watched for the first time when a bird on the sidewalk in front of him jumped into the air flew away, the never-ending game of "drop" to watch how the spoon (or whatever) falls to the floor when he let go of it, the way he tried to grab water while it streamed from the faucet. He was intrigued by the way things work; I was intrigued by his learning, to what he gave his attention.
In fact, in those first twelve months he discovered his first passion: machines. It started with a little red race car toy that he played with endlessly. He tossed it and watched it roll; he laid on his belly and gently pushed it back and forth while he gazed at the wheels.
Shortly thereafter his interest grew to include working trucks (dump trucks, backhoe loaders, etc.) and (due to ubiquity of Thomas the Train) trains. We watched videos, learned songs, and read books about trucks. On our bike rides around town - to the grocery store and playgrounds - we would stop and watch machines work at construction sites. He was obsessed.
If it were up to him we would do nothing but enjoy trucks and working machines all day every day. And while I indulged him (quite a bit in fact) I still chose to read fiction to him and I took him to play at a variety of places with a variety of friends. Our repertoire remained broad because of it.
He was a quiet little guy. When he turned one year old he said only three words - mama, papa, and yeah. He used sign language for please, thank you, more, help, and swing. But no one seemed worried about his intellect. He was lively and engaged with the world around him. (Arguably too engaged - he spent an inordinate amount of time investigating why his rattle (pictured below) only sometimes made noise.) He could bring us items based on their name and descriptions. He seemed to understand quantity. He learned to crawl and walk with his same-aged peers. We assumed it would all even out eventually - when he was ready he would speak.
In the mean time, I learned to intuit his needs as we built a life together. We became regulars at the local playgrounds, library, grocery store, and children's museum. We made friends. We read books. It was a life rich with the typical features of early childhood development (and early parenthood development), full of learning and adventure.
Books though... Books littered nearly every aspect of our lives. They were in the car, in the stroller, and in the diaper bag. We read together morning, noon, and night - whenever we needed to connect, felt bored, or thought it would be a nice way to enjoy a picnic. It was no wonder that anyone who visited our home would eventually pick up a book and read with us.
My son was not quite a year old when my cousin, Nick, moved from Arizona to Montana. He lived with us for about a month while he transitioned into a new job and found a place of his own. Although my cousin was busy during that time he made time to connect with us after dinner and on the weekends. And it was when Nick read a familiar book to Tigger that my child realized a new quality of the written word.
My cousin opened the book and began to read aloud. My son turned to me with a look of astonishment to which I replied, "I know! He knows the words, too." I am as convinced now as I was then - that was what my son was thinking. And I believe that was the moment that he really learned the purpose and the power of letters/books. They weren't mine. They were shared with anyone who could understand them.
That was academic pre-literacy. But the way books were in our lives was bigger than that. Relationships were built around books, much the way Emilie Buchwald declared:
"Children are made readers in the laps of of their parents."
My lap was the one he sat in the most. But he also read with his father and his grandparents, visitors to our home and his friends' parents.
To my delight, Tigger seemed to agree that books (and reading them together) are awesome. He even started to develop a sense that some books are better than others. For example, he loved the mystery and surprise at the end of Donald Crews' Caldecott Honor Book "Freight Train" where the train seemingly disappears from the page. "Where did it go?" Tigger seemed to ask with his gesture. It seemed clear to me that he was engaged, thoughtful, and interested in the story.
But he absolutely loved pint-sized reference books. He would sit with them and pull his toy trucks to match. It seemed like he was curating a mental catalogue of machines: this is my toy bulldozer and here is a picture of a bulldozer; this is my dump truck and here is a picture of a dump truck. Not only was he learning the proper names of the machines, he was also interested in the specialized work they do. So I sat with him and read the descriptions of each machine, each part of each machine, and each explanation of the jobs they did.
I was happy for his interest to direct and fuel our inquiry. What is more, his insatiable appetite for learning was infectious and so I also became curious about construction sites. I stopped calling everything a "truck" and began using their proper names. In this way, we learned and developed a common language to communicate about the massive, powerful machines.
Note: Our learning was not achieved with flashcards or drills. It wasn't stuck in books; knowledge was honed through living. For us, in toddlerhood, it looked like playing...
A typical day included a trip to one of the local playgrounds. I would pack the diaper bag with all the accoutrements of early parenthood (diapers, wipes, water, snacks). Then, together with my son, I would load the stroller with other necessities - a picnic blanket, books and toys (a dump truck and a front end loader). Then we would walk several blocks to a playground.
More often than not we went to a place called Bonner Park because it was close, friends could easily meet us there, it had a lot of sand as well as a splash-pad, swings, and enormous wooden play structure. Surrounded on all four sides by residential properties, Bonner Park was ideal for chasing the garbage truck as it did it's rounds on garbage day. And, as if that wasn't enough, it was also frequented by the local ice cream truck.
I didn't know it at the time but the three typical features of our trips to the park would follow us for years to come:
One of the first things my child would do when we arrived was get his bearings by running the maze. His tiny legs moved in a blur as he ran up the ramp of the play structure, turned a corner, crossed the bridge, and zigged and zagged his way to the ramp on the other side. Occasionally he climbed a rope ladder instead of the ramp or rode down a slide as his exit. But by and large he followed the same path.
He also always played in the sand. Sometimes he would get on hands and knees and push his bare hands through the sand. I watched as he would lie in the sand and observe it closely. Other times he would get a his front end loader and scoop the sand. Sometimes he'd drive the load up the ramp to the top of the slide and pour it down. Other times he would drive it to the sidewalk, and dump it out. By the day's end, there would be a pile of sand at the bottom of the slide (that I'd brush off) and a dozen or more small piles of sand placed on the cement that marked the edge of the playground's sand.
And, without a doubt, he'd ride on a swing. If there was a bucket swing then he would use sign language to ask for help in and, of course, I'd push him. If the only swings were for "big kids" then he would ride on my lap. (I would later learn from his occupational therapist that swinging for 15 minutes can help regulate a child for up-to 24 hours.)
Between all the play on the ramps, with the sand, and in the swings I started noticing him doing what I called "Playground Physics." Not only had he learned rotational-translational motion from playing with his beloved red race car as an infant, it also seemed evident that he was developing some serious visual-spatial awareness by "running the maze" and getting very comfortable with properties of sand including how it moves. So even as young as a toddler he appeared to be an aspiring self-made expert on force and motion, simple machines, and fluid dynamics.
He was (and remains) a Playground Physicist.
Things went on like that. We read a lot of books, we went to playgrounds, we toddled hiking trails, and played with toys. It wasn't until he was two and a half years old that he started to speak.
Unfortunately, his speech sounded like baby babble. His lack of articulation made him incomprehensible. He "spoke" in full sentences, complete with proper intonation...none of which could be understood. One thing lead to another and with the help of a speech therapist he began to articulate things well enough to be understood. By this time he was three years old and the things he said surprised many of us...
One evening he sat in the bath as part of our typical bedtime routine. As always he enjoyed closely watching water. He watched it flow from the spout, he scooped it with a cup and dumped it out, he experimented with differently shaped bottles, and watched a water slowly soak a dry washcloth. Then he asked a question that seared into my mind:
"Is water like very small sand?"
His father (a physicist) and I (an electrical engineer) were amazed. It seemed to us that our three year old had just suggested a model that approximated water molecules with grains of sand. Of course, we realize that water is a liquid and sand is a solid. But typical three year olds cannot form an abstract representation of something microscopic. Indeed. We had yet to discover just how atypical his is.
Before Tigger's bath was through my husband had offered his best three-year-old-friendly explanation of water molecules.
Don't get me wrong. He wasn't a fountain of outstanding observations of the physical and natural world. Most of what he said was typical toddler stuff. He started sharing his observations, "I see a grader!" and, pointing at a box from IKEA, "Hey! That says IKEA." He helped decide which playground to go to, "Let's go to Sand Park." He also talked about what we saw in the books we would read - pointing out letters, shapes, numbers, and finding Goldbug in Richard Scary's "Cars and Trucks and Things that Go." He sat in his car seat and recited from memory the spelling of the title of one of his favorite picture books: "D E M O L I T I O N. DEMOLITION!"
And so our lives continued with the privilege of adventure available to upper-middle class families. We went to the zoo, the children's museum, and the library. We had playdates with our neighbors. We enjoyed installation art including the Michigan Legacy Art Park as well as Chihuly at various botanical gardens. There were trips to the grocery store where Tigger would push the toddler-sized carts around to "help" me. He did gymnastics and took swim lessons. Life was grand.
And sometimes, seemingly out of nowhere, he would surprise us with making a massive leap forward. Case in point - his first train track. For years we had visited the train table at Barnes and Nobles. He would stand and play with the roundhouse or the train-wash station. He would push the toy trains around with specific intent to watch it careen down the hill. And like many families in our circle we even had our own large set of wooden tracks at home. The thing about our private set that struck me as odd was that he never built with it. Every time we took the tracks out I would assemble a system, not him.
He was happy to have me building tracks while he did other things. No matter how I invited him, he never joined me. He wouldn't even put two pieces together. He might vote "yea" or "nay" that I would include the tunnel, the bridge, or the splitter in my work but he never designed his own - not in part or in whole.
Sometimes it merely seemed curious to me. Why wouldn't he build a train track? Even a simple line or small circle? Other times I felt frustrated that we had this box of train tracks that he never played with. That is until one day he knocked it out of the park. I walked into the play room and discovered that he had made a train track system (a closed system at that) that used every single piece of track. He went from never even touching the toy to building a massive and elaborate system that took up more than half the floor space in the not-small room.
His curious preoccupations and asynchronous development eventually earned him some labels. He is twice exceptional: his social skills and restrictive repetitive behavior place him in the bottom 2% of children his age, which is labeled Autism; his IQ places him in the top 2%, which is labeled Gifted. Those diagnoses provided our family with important insights for understanding him as well as parenting strategies for scaffolding his strengths and his weaknesses.
And so I started reading about autism and giftedness. Sometimes I found myself weeping over the pages of a book, feeling the relief that comes with finally understanding something peculiar. Other times I would raise an eyebrow and wonder at the suggestions made - A visual schedule never worked before, why would it now? But a Back Jack chair? Perhaps it could solve our circle time woes. Together with my husband, we started to enact recommended strategies and, like most of the experiment called "parenting" goes, some worked right away, others worked with persistence, and some didn't work at all.
However, for the most part our lives continued as they had been - filled with books and adventure. (Although some of the new adventures were to work with occupational therapists and speech therapists.)
It was after one such new adventure that I felt perplexed. The speech therapist (a woman I trust and respect) came to me and described something that concerned her. They had gone on a letter hunt for the letter M and Tigger had pointed out not only the Ms but the Ws as well. At the time I didn't understand why that would be cause for concern. In fact, I thought it was quite clever that he had been able to spot the Ms-in-disguise. Now I understand that it was indicative of the challenges he'd face decoding letters.
The diagnosis didn't change who my child is. It simply gave us a clue that he experiencing the world markedly different from 99.5% of children his age. Case in point, those profound physics epiphanies... They continued to happen year after year. When he was four years old he asked:
"Is electricity like very small water?"
And at age five:
"If the earth is spinning then why don't we fly off?"
These spontaneous and insightful questions arose as if from nowhere - offered up in the hushed moments before bedtime or while digging quietly in the sandbox. They were never related to the most recent topic of conversation, which seemed to make them all the more brilliant.
By the time he was ready to start public school he appeared to be a poster child for early intervention. He could speak intelligibly; he looked at people when he spoke and when they spoke to him; his nutrition was homemade and wholesome; he was remarkably self-aware; when his sensory needs were met and his preoccupations given time to be explored, he was a willing and able student. He LOVED being around other people. (And I looked forward to being that much closer to getting a job again.) School could be the newest adventure...
...or not. At the first IEP meeting I was struck by how narrow was their focus. The team ignored two thirds of his Medical Developmental Assessment (Phonological Disorder, Gifted) and concentrated on Autism. I now know that they, in fact, completely disregarded the medical diagnoses and skipped the 504, focusing only on their own educational assessment to create an IEP. I was told, "We are only discussing his ability to participate in school life," the subtext to which was "we aren't interested in his ability to function outside of school." They also told me: "if you don't attend your neighborhood school then we cannot guarantee services."
My lively and charismatic child was reduced to a label and treated like a misunderstood deviant.
At the same time we gained access to more interventions including therapeutic karate, yoga, and handwriting. It meant more time in the car and so we added audio stories to our reading - some DIY, some professionally produced books, and even a few operas.
Outside of school he was thriving. He had great relationships with karate classmates, his coaches, and tutors. He formed relationships with local musicians. When he started public school the richness, spontaneity, and whole child way of life was reduced to checklists. He knew most of the letters and their sounds, he could count. That was the long and short of his existence.
He made it through Kindergarten (3 hours per day, five days per week) fairly unscathed but passing his standardized tests by the skin of his teeth. And yet he still enjoyed sitting with a book...
First grade was a whole different story. I was told that there was no programming for gifted students until the third grade. I also received some raised eyebrows when I confessed that, no, my son can't read. And that common indicator of giftedness (early reading) slapped me in the face: If he can't read then he's certainly not gifted.
It took six months of first grade to obliterate his spirit. He started having tantrums that lasted most of his waking hours at home. He cried. He claimed that he didn't deserve love. Then he began eloping from school. There was no longer time for books or adventures; our time was spent trying to manage his meltdowns and work with the school to remedy the cause of his paralyzing struggles.
I tried to be patiently impatient with the school. I offered solutions; I volunteered to build a program; I was open and honest; I requested a para. Emails, phone calls and special meetings were held while they hurriedly pantomimed their way through the motions to brainstorm how to meet my son's needs without straining their system. Afterwards taking so long to implement agreed-upon interventions that he would have a whole new set of challenges. Meanwhile my son, a mere seven years old, descended into depression.
Eventually we were advised by a trusted professional who was familiar with autism, twice exceptionality, and the school district to make a choice: either sue the school for child abuse or disenroll him and find a different plan for educating him. We chose the latter. Slowly but steadily his health improved and he moves confidently through the world again.
Now we are back to living a life full of adventure and books. And you know what? He recently turned eight years old and he can read.
His current favorite books to read aloud are by Anna Kang. They are simple picture books that tell engaging stories about lovable characters. They are probably not considered "age appropriate" but you know what? They are developmentally appropriate for him. He is ready to face the letters and words on the page with confidence...and so he does.
He also sits quietly with reference books about Minecraft. When he is reading those books I am sometimes asked to read important passages that he can't quite figure out on his own.
Of course, audiobooks are still a HUGE presence in our lives. These days he is binging on a newly discovered series called "Wings of Fire" - 300 page books that when read aloud run approximately eight hours.
So he still enjoys reference books. He loves good stories - long ones and short ones. Cognitively he can understand and enjoy long complicated books. But when using his eyes to read he is easily fatigued so short and sweet is better. Both ways of enjoying books are valid. Both ways are important. Both ways are part of our daily life.
We no longer fit on the antique rocking chair together but that other aspect of reading is preserved in our homeschool: books bring us together.
The other day he was having a hard time. There was no obvious explanation for his explosiveness. My husband and I brainstormed about half a dozen equally plausible ideas including growth spurt, developmental spurt, and jealousy that his younger sister is rapidly learning to read and write. Whatever the cause, I struggled to parent with patience and flexibility for an entire seven hours before we collapsed together on the couch at 1PM. He scowled at me.
I suggested, "want to read a book together? Sometimes that helps." To which he reluctantly replied, "ok." I held "I Am (Not) Scared" in between us. He began to read aloud without me asking. And as if by magic he began to smile. With each turn of a page his smile got bigger. By the end, he said, "Ah. That worked! I feel better." His shoulders had relaxed and he seemed lighter, ready to get off the couch and go play, which is exactly what he did.
So the relationship built around books remains intact.
I never really worried that my child would learn to read. I believe that all children will learn to read when they are ready. It will happen organically and be done with enthusiasm. All they need is time, space, and an environment filled with interesting (to them) books and book-lovers.
Only the school considered my child's way of learning to read pathological because the way he learned was out-of-sync with what they expected/needed in terms of speed, timing, and rhythm. However, for children who are wildly asynchronous, like he is, reading readiness is tricky business. And it should be approached with flexibility, an imagination, and boatloads of patience.
In ending, it is with great joy that I celebrate the light at the end of this tunnel (one of many on the road of parenting)! My son is gifted; he is autistic; and he can finally read.