It took Charlie some two and a half years to learn to say that.
I don’t mean to pronounce the sounds, the /n/ instead of /m/, the final /d/, and /r/ following the /b/ instead of a /w/. Charlie could say a passable rendition of those three words—I need break—-two and a half or so years ago when he was in summer school in the town we used to live in. He had just turned seven years old and the cheerful, young, energetic staff and Charlie being with the same children he had spent the previous school year with seemed just the right combination for a good summer.
Charlie had a few, then more frequent, “incidents” of hitting his head. The lights? Another student crying? The noise level in the room growing too loud?
It was decided, and it made sense, that Charlie might be needing to get out of the room, to take a break. A “break” card was made (with the PECS symbol of a clock zigzag-broken in half) and placed near Charlie at all times. When the noise level rose, he was prompted to say “I need break” and then taken outside the room.
Once or twice he was said to have asked for a break on his own; all the other times, he had to be prompted by tapping the card or verbally. There were days that were “behavior-free”; there were days ending with the teacher and I in long conversations about “what had happened.” Then Charlie, for the first time since he traded in diapers for underpants at the age of three, began to have accidents, first at school and then at home. I did not know it then, but those summer days were the beginning of some of the toughest times for Charlie, and for Jim and me. Charlie—who had benefited from early intervention in the form of forty hours a week of intensive ABA from the Lovaas agency and numerous of the less intrusive biomedical interventials (special diet, probiotic supplements), who was the boy who still couldn’t talk too well, still couldn’t read, but who could be taken anywhere—became a child with “severe behavior problems” who made “minimal” or “no” progress in all of his academic subjects. Who was really stuck.
Where had we gone wrong?
Lest I sound too lugubrious, there is a happy ending to Charlie’s regression, as detailed in the past few months here, and especially from the time Charlie attended a private autism ABA school for about six months, and then (when that school closed), from the time he entered our current school district, back in June 2006. I am not even sure if “regression” is the right word to describe the past years of academic stasis and behavioral sliding; this is also the period when he learned to go on long bike rides and to swim in the ocean, and in which his speech–especially his articulation—-tremendously improved. But the behavior problems, because they involved self-injury, became dominant and indeed dominated our lives.
Teaching Charlie to ask “I need break” was suggested, and implemented, by verbal behavior therapists, all of Charlie’s school teachers, and his home ABA program (Lovaas again, in our case). This time around, teaching Charlie to ask for a break was not taught incidentally, but as a completely separate program. He started very occasionally to ask for a break in each separate setting, but inconsistently and with prompting. And then, it has been slowly dawning on me, that Charlie has been saying “I need break” on his own since the start of this year. He asked for a break a few times during his piano lesson on Sunday. Yesterday, when another child was crying at school, Charlie got anxious, said “I need break,” and quickly calmed. Today he asked for breaks on and off during his ABA session and for the past few days Charlie has been a peaceful easy feeling boy if there ever was one (and with lots of language: “Back California! Can I have peas? Can I have bread? G’oves!”).
Asking for a break, I have been thinking, is a multi-step process. I am suspecting that it is not just that Charlie feels anxious on hearing screaming or crying and asks to go somewhere else. I think that, when he was younger, Charlie may well have understood that he was to ask for a break when he heard the noise, but by then he was already upset. Gradually, slowly, he has been learning to understand that something is going to make him feel bad—-to predict that he will get upset, and to ask to leave before anything else happens. There is not some magic pilll, some new therapy, some change in the heavens that has occurred for Charlie to have what I will rather grandly call an epistemological breakthrough—-some new understanding.
I think it is happening in part for a very simple reason. Charlie is getting older, Charlie is growing up, Charlie is maturing—with age, does not some wisdom come, “even” for my “developmentally delayed” son with autism?
Not even; of course.
When Charlie was two, when Charlie was in preschool, I feared for the future. What will it be like for him to be my height if he cannot read? If he cannot be in a regular classroom? When I can no longer lift him, his full weight propped upon my left arm, to safety? When Jim teaches him to shave the fuzz we can already see growing on his upper lip?
And while I’m not saying I don’t worry about tomorrow, or about strings of many tomorrows when Charlie is all grown up, I can say tonight that Charlie has figured something out on his own—“I need break!”—and that, if I have less of a muscle in my upper left arm, this is a good thing indeed. I have been carrying Charlie for a long time and it seems that I am just as much in need of the break he has given to me.