Monday, August 26, 2002

August 26-30, 2002

AUGUST 26, 2002

Well, we survived another vacation. A few moments from our trip to Williamsburg, Va.:

Trip highlight: My daughter throwing aside a significant amont of fear and learning to drive a Go-Kart.

Trip lowlight: My son throwing up in the Food Lion supermarket.

Disaster narrowly averted: During a screwed-up check-in that involved moving among three different units, I left my son's much-beloved Scooby Doo doll in one of the bedrooms left behind. He was rescued by Maintenance and safetly returned.

Disaster not averted at all: My daughter caught a frisbee with her mouth instead of her hands, causing a split lip.

Least favorite educational attraction: Colonial Williamsburg, which my daughter, being a preteen and constitutionally averse to anything good for her, labeled "boring."

Favorite educational attraction: The Children's Museum in Portsmouth, in whose fake city bus my son would still be playing if we hadn't dragged him away.

Thing we appreciated least about Williamsburg: Humidity you could swim in.

Thing we appreciated most: Possibly the greatest concentration of fast-food joints known to man.

Most commonly heard child's complaint, arrival through Friday evening: "I don't like it here, I wish we were back home."

Most commonly heard child's complaint, Saturday morning departure: "I like it here, I wish we could stay."

How I knew I was really home: Took a look through my son's IEP, which had arrived in our absence, and felt my blood pressure return to pre-vacation highs.

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AUGUST 27, 2002

I was talking with a friend the other day about my son, and how people seem to respond positively to him even when he's doing something socially unacceptable, like grabbing their keys and asking them nosy questions. I've always thought it's because he looks and acts so much younger than his nine years -- that people were responding to him as a precocious preschooler rather than a peculiar third-grader. But my friend felt that it was my boy's obvious neurological quirks that made people realize that he need to be treated with extra understanding. And though I've never considered that, he surely does present as different than your average child, and anybody who notices his jumping, hand-waving and foot stomping or listens to his high-pitched, sometimes oddly-cadenced voice and slurry words might indeed be inclined to cut him some slack. I've certainly noticed such oddities in other kids, and done the same.

So it's been interesting to read through his IEP and see how determined the good people who work with him are to rid him of all those mannerisms that have been most effective in gaining him understanding from the populace at large. Making him walk upright without bending over; making him speak with tone, speed and pitch befitting his "age and gender"; curtailing his jumpiness; helping him to appear in all ways like a "normal" child -- these are thought-out, strategized goals pervading all facets of his education. And while I understand that these are the sort of things special-ed professionals are trained to go after, I wonder if, in the case of this specific child, they're really doing him any favors. The greatest curse to befall children with FAE is to appear perfectly normal but be perfectly unable to back that up with normal cognitive and behavioral abilities. My son has never suffered from that, probably because two years of Russian orphanage deprivation sent his development out of whack in so many readily observable ways. Why should we take that safeguard from him now, when he's moving into the treacherous waters of upper elementary and middle school?

I say, let him jump, squeak, sway and swing at will. And make it a major goal for him to, I don't know, learn something?

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AUGUST 28, 2002

There's outrage a-brewin' in cyberspace over a movie called "The United States of Leland," whose subject matter includes the murder of an autistic child. What the film thinks of that event is hard to know at this point; since it's due for release in 2003, possibly at the Sundance festival, there's not much information about it on-line as yet.

From what little I've been able to glean from the few Web sites that mention it -- the production company's site at, for example, and,, and -- it sounds as though the film is a serious study of why an apparently sensitive, intelligent teen-ager would commit a crime so horrific as murdering an autistic child. That the young man claims to have done it out of sadness for the child -- as "emotional euthanasia" -- does not appear, from what I've read, to be the film's point of view, but rather a point of view that the film takes pains to present as puzzling. Also examined are the ramifications of the event on the families of both the murderer and the victim.

In the wake of tragic events like the Columbine shootings and even Sept. 11, an examination of why human beings commit inhuman acts certainly seems appropriate. In a society that increasingly sees lawsuits for wrongful birth from the parents of handicapped children outraged at having lost the right to abort them, an examination of the value of persons with special needs and whether it's ever right to judge that their suffering is greater than their right to life sounds of interest as well. And as somebody whose son has an affliction -- fetal alcohol effect -- whose sufferers have been known to commit crimes of impulse without any sort of reasonable thought behind it, I'm not particularly offended if the movie doesn't immediately and irredeemably scapegoat the teen for his act. It's entirely possible that there will be much in this movie to offend, but at least as equally possible that it may provoke very useful thought.

Of course, the folks who circulate on-line petitions have no time for such subtleties. This one concludes that the film uses the murder of an autistic child solely for entertainment value, and wants us to get up in arms. Myself, I'd like a little more information before I let something like this raise my blood pressure. As anyone who loves a child with special needs knows, it's a bad idea to judge anything by what's most readily visible from the surface.

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AUGUST 29, 2002

We added a masterpiece of modern technology to our home yesterday. No, not a new computer; not a DVD player or a digital camera or a cooking convenience. We're talking a little something in the toilet line, or maybe at the top of the toilet line: a brand spankin' new, gleaming white Power Flush toilet. And it may not seem like much to you, but the whole silly thing -- with its macho name, inner workings encased in black plastic and explosive WHOOSH that ensures that what comes out must go down -- makes me feel like I'm stuck in a Dave Barry column, or maybe an episode of "Home Improvement." I can only imagine how Tim Taylor would turbo-power his Power Flush.

It's nice, certainly, to finally have a toilet that takes care of business. But already, I'm seeing a downside, which is: that WHOOSH throws my easily overstimulated son into a gleefully hyper tizzy. He couldn't be more thrilled with it! He does a little dance! He has to be present for every gloriously percussive flush! Now it's true, he also used to obsess over what didn't disappear in our old, Weak Flush commode. This is, I suppose, an improvement. But I'll be glad for the day when he doesn't have to scream "BOOM!" every time someone flushes. Simple pleasures are the best, but still.

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AUGUST 30, 2002

I read a book over my week of vacation called "Strategies that Work: Teaching Comprehension to Enhance Understanding" (so much for light summer reading). It went over a lot of the same reading comprehension territory as a book I read last year, "Mosaic of Thought," but with some more concrete strategies for implementation. One of the things the book recommended teachers do is ask students what they think it means to read. Their answers should help those teachers understand what sort of problems they may be having.

So I asked my daughter, for whom reading comprehension has always been so frustrating. She gave me that blank stare I so often see when I ask a question out of her depth, and then she managed to dredge up some definitions that all had the word "read" in them. When I challenged her to come up with a definition that did not contain the word "read," she just shrugged. I figured that would be the last of it.

But a few days later, she told me proudly that she knew what the word "read" meant. I was shocked that she still rememembered that I'd asked -- usually my attempts at philosophical conversation are forgotten with extreme prejudice -- and begged to know. And her answer was: "Staring at black marks on paper." Which does, indeed, reinforce for me again what an entirely uninteresting experience reading is for her, and how far we have to go to make reading something that involves meaning and learning and excitement and fun. Maybe the fact that she was able to formulate such a useful answer indicates that she's ready to hit that road.

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