Cami and I currently volunteer with the K-9 Reading Buddies, a literacy program for children, and with soldiers in a Veterans Administration mental hospital. We used to work with autistic children ages 3-6.
Our visits were scheduled for every other Thursday, a job I shared with another dog owner. Many autistic children are fearful, including the fear of animals. Cami must have seemed like a big, furry monster. When some of the kids first met her they wouldn't come near. One even screamed in terror. Eventually, the kids’ comfort level improved and some of them enjoyed petting Cami. One little boy would pet her using his teacher’s hand.
With the teacher, we'd walk Cami around the school. I'd give the kids a long leash, so they thought they were “driving,” but I was really using my own short leash. The teachers and I collaborated on improving the kids’ responses to commands like “listen, stop, go, watch”—behaviors that make the world of an autistic child safer. Cami obeyed these commands and acted as a role model. Sometimes we'd teach the kids new words or phrases. If they were nonverbal and/or enjoy singing, I’d make up a song to the tune of “Mary had a Little Lamb” or “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” and put the child’s name in it. (I’m not above making a fool of myself.)
Autism is more prevalent among boys, and each child has his or her own particular set of challenges. Several of the kids we worked with “graduated” to other schools, including one very special little girl.
Miss A came to the school when she was five and a half. She arrived with a full-time, one-on-one teacher. She was a wild-child. She threw tantrums. She thrashed and grunted. She had no language. She didn’t seem especially bright.
It was thought that Miss A would probably not speak, so she was given a portable computer called a “talker box.” (Think early iPad.) It was about the size of an Etch-a-Sketch, only thicker, with picture icons that were programmed to say different words. Press a button and the talker would name basic objects, shapes, colors, people, and so on. The device could either hang around Miss A's neck on a strap or she could carry it.
Miss A took to her talker like Chopin to the piano. Once she got the basics, she immediately began to "vocalize." If you asked her what Cami was, she'd press the key with a dog image and the talker said dog. Ask her what color Cami is and she pressed a button that took her to different screen. She'd find the appropriate button and the voice said brown. Gold star! Miss A could search for additional information and make refinements. Dog. Brown. Ears. Tail. Feet.
One day she kept pointing to an empty key on her talker. I asked if I could see it. At first she was a little reluctant. Who could blame her for not wanting to relinquish her newly found voice? I asked if there were something she wanted in that empty square. She nodded yes. I asked, “Is it Cami's name?” She looked me in straight in the eye and then placed her hand on my chest. The word she wanted on her talker was my name. I can't tell you how touched I was.
New words had to be programmed in the talker. I told the school director what Miss A wanted, and she made it happen. The next time I saw Miss A, her face got a “have-I-got-something-cool-to-show-you!” expression. Her talker could now say Tena and Cami.
At the end of the year, Miss A was a very different child than when I first met her. She was less fearful and more confident. Her determination to learn was inspiring. The intelligence that had been buried under a mountain of frustration now shone through. With her new ability to communicate, she was eager to learn more words. Having basic communication skills must have been an enormous relief. Finally, and best of all, Miss A had begun to talk using her own words. She had a voice.
I’m not suggesting that her progress was only because she had the talker. The patience and talent of her teachers were huge factors in her spectacular progress. Miss A will always be autistic, but now she’s better equipped to face the world.
At the year-end picnic, Miss A opened my zippered fanny pack. She loved to riffle through it and explore the contents. She found my identification card from Therapy Dogs International, which has a photograph Cami. It was clear that Miss A wanted to keep that photo. Since the card had expired, I let her have it. She also found my digital camera. She seized it and immediately started clicking away. A self-portrait of the artist:
I think the composition of this photograph is uncanny. The images are perfectly aligned in negative space.
This photo strikes me as a metaphor for an autistic child: someone whose inner world is only partly visable.