Sometimes it takes years for someone to point out something that, in retrospect, looks obvious. And with that epiphany, it’s like you’ve been living in a fog that has just lifted.
That may have just happened yesterday. Maybe, maybe not.
For the first time yesterday, I phoned in my presence on an IEP of Dar’s. (My phoning it in was not the epiphany.) My phone-presence was partly due to child-care arrangements, mostly because this wouldn’t be “the real IEP,” which has been postponed to October to give the team more time to prepare.
With me on speakerphone and a small version of Dar’s team in a room at the school, we spoke about my many concerns. The briefest list possible: goal updating, potty training, Dar’s violent outbursts, aide consistency. And I’m not sure if the district and I are exactly on the same page on any of those.
However, a new member of Dar’s team, who I’ll call E, suggested something that could – maybe, possibly, perhaps, quizas, peut-etre – become a game-changer for Dar. She prefaced her idea by emphasizing the need for life skills for Dar. She asked, what do we want Dar doing when he’s 21? (That number didn’t come out of nowhere. Dar is so severe that he will no doubt be with the district until exactly that age, the age at which he no longer qualifies for any school district.) She was cautious, as though I might accuse her of promoting child labor. She needn’t have worried; I am more than thrilled for Dar to be attempting any sort of useful labor. Technically he’s way past the age that most kids start doing chores around the house, and he’s certainly never done a chore.
Dar’s school has an enclosed garden. I’ve been walking by it for three years without really giving it a second thought, other than, “boy-howdy, when I was a kid, my school sure didn’t have organic sassafras or the like.”
E suggested that Dar begin doing chores in the garden. Now, Dar will become obsessed with this that and the other for a couple of weeks, and then the day that we invest $50 to get an instructional play set of whatever it is, he loses all interest. (I don’t pretend that this experience is exclusive to parents of autistic kids.) However, water and dirt have emerged as constants. He loves handling flowing water and dirt (separately, because we don’t want mud all over the house). He lives to watch the tap water and small soil fall through his fingers. This isn’t a summer crush; it’s a lifetime obsession.
I personally love the idea of trying to turn this behavior into something productive. Something like watering plants and tilling soil. The school principal warmly endorsed the idea. Clearly, Dar would need to be supervised at all times, and they said he would be. Frankly, I wonder how hard this will be for him. But he’s currently able to put, say, scattered Legos back into a box, so it’s not out of the question that he could be taught to direct water and dirt.
This idea is brilliant for other reasons. The school’s garden is outside, in a part of the playground not directly adjacent to any classroom; while there, Dar could make his usual noises without disturbing other students. Furthermore, it could change Dar’s entire relationship to breaks and going outside.
Dar spends up to half of each day using his iPad/talker to request “outside.” If he doesn’t get it, he just screams until they take him outside. And what choice do they have, really? The other 20 kids in the class can’t learn with a tea kettle whistling in the room. Longtime readers will know that this has been our constant problem with Berkeley’s insistence on immersion: what is the point of immersion if he leaves class all the time? Wouldn’t he be better off in an environment where breaks were rarer? But if his screaming outbursts became re-directions to the garden, then eventually perhaps he would realize he can’t scream his way out of work.
I’m a little embarrassed that this hadn’t already come up at our house. Dar’s little brother has been volunteering to water the plants for years now. We just never pushed it on Dar; we didn’t see how we could. We tend to avoid pushing things on Dar at home; all of us need to relax after long days at work. This is one reason you don’t want to be a parent of an autistic child; you don’t get nearly as much time to relax.
My dreams for my child are not the same as your dreams for your (neuro-typical) child. Looking ahead twenty years, we would be thrilled for Dar to have any kind of custodial job; for us, minimum wage is maximum possibility. Perhaps his sonorous tee-tee-teeing could even be transformed from a bug into a feature. It could conceivably scare off pests and birds. But don’t call Dar a scarecrow; call him a garden guardian.
If I’m honest, gardening seems a little above his realistic pay grade. But I could imagine a future for Dar as part of some California-subsidized program for severely autistic adults in which he’s allowed/encouraged to help tend a garden. Someone would need a lot of patience with him. But it’s not utterly crazy. Is it?
Yesterday was just the first step. A seed has been planted. We’ll see if it grows into crabgrass or a mighty beanstalk.
And now, some quotes about gardening:
In the spring, at the end of the day, you should smell like dirt. Margaret Atwood
If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need. Marcus Tullius Cicero
The garden suggests there might be a place where we can meet nature halfway. Michael Pollan
No occupation is so delightful to me as the culture of the earth, and no culture comparable to that of the garden. Thomas Jefferson
To see a world in a grain of sand and heaven in a wild flower, hold infinity in the palm of your hand and eternity in an hour. William Blake
Let us not forget that the cultivation of the earth is the most important labor of man. When tillage begins, other arts will follow. The farmers, therefore, are the founders of civilization. Daniel Webster
I want it said of me by those who knew me best, that I always plucked a thistle and planted a flower where I thought a flower would grow. Abraham Lincoln
Flowers are restful to look at. They have neither emotions nor conflicts. Sigmund Freud
The glory of gardening: hands in the dirt, head in the sun, heart with nature. To nurture a garden is to feed not just on the body, but the soul. Alfred Austin
A garden is a grand teacher. It teaches patience and careful watchfulness; it teaches industry and thrift; above all it teaches entire trust. Gertrude Jekyll
A garden requires patient labor and attention. Plants do not grow merely to satisfy ambitions or to fulfill good intentions. They thrive because someone expended effort on them. Liberty Hyde Bailey
Gardens are not made by singing ‘Oh, how beautiful,’ and sitting in the shade. Rudyard Kipling
Remember that children, marriages, and flower gardens reflect the kind of care they get. H. Jackson Brown, Jr.
We must cultivate our own garden. When man was put in the garden of Eden he was put there so that he should work, which proves that man was not born to rest. Voltaire
The best place to find God is in a garden. You can dig for him there. George Bernard Shaw
And forget not that the earth delights to feel your bare feet and the winds long to play with your hair. Khalil Gibran
Everything that slows us down and forces patience, everything that sets us back into the slow circles of nature, is a help. Gardening is an instrument of grace. May Barton
Trees and plants always look like the people they live with, somehow. Zora Neale Hurston
If your knees aren’t green by the end of the day, you ought to seriously re-examine your life. Bill Watterson
Gardening is learning, learning, learning. That’s the fun of them. You’re always learning. Helen Mirren
A weed is a plant that has mastered every survival skill except for learning how to grow in rows. Doug Larson
Weeds are flowers too, once you get to know them. A. A. Milne