Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Girl Who Couldn't Talk

I feel as though I may forget to tell you about this if I wait any longer, since there's so much going on around here. I did eventually get off on my journey on the 23rd, although it was a later start than anticipated. Luckily it was much earlier in the day at my destination, so ultimately it didn't much matter that I'd been delayed.
I was sent out to meet this particular girl to see if I could determine anything about her point of view from her attempts at communication, but we had a letter from her brother to Santa which I wasn't allowed to see until I returned. The reason for that is that the letter was disturbing (and written at a moment of exasperation), and Santa thought I'd probably be able to make a clearer assessment without having seen the letter. He was probably right. I was able to see the girl's intentions in very simple terms, but I'll bet I'd never have been able to do that if I'd read the letter first.

The girl was in a day-care setting with about ten other kids, all of them under full-time individual supervision, all of them being hovered over in my opinion...but who did seem that they each had very constant and very individualized needs. I really did not have much advance guidance for this visit, so just before I hopped out of the coach to go inside and meet this girl, I found myself turning to my traveling companion (a costume-production manager from the Art Department/Universal Images of Christmas) and asking, "Do I need an agenda? Ostensibly? I mean, should I be delivering something, or reading a Christmas story, or something?"
She looked up at me and said (very directly), "Listen. You are going to talk to someone who can't be understood. The last thing you want to do is hide. Just go talk to her!"

So I did. I went in to the day care center, I found the girl immediately (I'd seen a picture), and I sat down across the table from her. I caught her eye and smiled. She blinked and looked the other way.
Over the next few minutes, I watched the girl interact with her caretakers. She would only speak when spoken to, and it was true that what she said was unintelligible. What she uttered was also louder and more forceful than what was being said to her.
The next thing the caretakers did was to give her crayons and paper. Each time, she would gather the crayons together and throw them into the air. When someone would draw a few lines on the paper and then hand her the crayon, she would look at the piece of paper with the lines on it, but would not touch it, and then she would throw the crayon up in the air. A couple of times I saw her carefully pick up a few pages of unmarked paper and throw those into the air as well.
I tried drawing her a picture. When I placed it in front of her, she looked at it without touching it, then looked at me and threw her hands up in the air. Seeing her do that, I thought, 'maybe she wants to stand up'. As soon as I'd had the thought, the sense that she really did want to stand up grew stronger. So I said, "Can we stand up?"
The girl's caretakers looked at each other and said, "Sure!", and they helped her to stand.
I tried singing her a song. Actually I tried two songs. The first was a call and response song. She just looked at me, and when I was done with each segment, she threw her arms out to the sides. I became aware of how annoying that song is when no one's singing back. I felt a little stupid, but I decided to try another song. This one was much prettier. She didn't look at me this time. Instead she looked at the ceiling. And the moment I finished the song, she threw her arms up in the air. Then she looked at me. I asked her a question. She said something back, but it was just the loud, forceful version of a comment I could not understand. I looked to her caretakers. They shook their heads.
I felt like I was running out of ideas, but then suddenly I thought, 'I wonder if she can build things with blocks'. I asked whether we could go sit on the rug in the corner of the room and play with the wooden blocks. The caretakers said yes. After the girl and I were sitting down on the floor, I realized that she never changed position on her own. She'd throw her arms (and voice) all over the place, but she wouldn't get up or sit down from where they'd placed her.
The blocks were basically a repeat of the crayon situation. I would hand her a block; she would throw it up in the air. I would build something; she wouldn't touch it. She would carefully pick up blocks AROUND what I'd built, and would then throw them up in the air, but she definitely didn't knock down anything I'd built. The other thing I noticed is that she never grabbed a block out of anyone's hand, never snatched a crayon away from anyone, and never touched anything someone else was using.
On my way out, once we were standing again, I took both of her hands into mine to say goodbye. She gripped my hands back and threw our arms up into the air. She didn't just fling wildly, though. She was very precise about it. And as she did that she was giggling softly.

Eventually I got back to the coach and once I was settled in for the trip back to the North Pole (where the hour was surely by now very late), my traveling companion said to me, "Well, what do you think? Do you know?"
"I don't know. And I still have to read the letter."
"Well, what's your wildest thought about it?"
"My wildest thought is 'she needs dance lessons!'"
"Yeah. It's like she needs permission to change positions. But then whenever she responds to anything, it's with a movement. And the thing that struck me the most about her was that she operates with this clear sense of fairness and she obviously knows how to take turns. I feel like she could make lot of progress if she were taught through movement rather than speech. I could tell she wanted freedom, but it wasn't coming to her through language. I don't even know if that's a good assessment or not. Or if it's possible to get that for her. I'm pretty tired. Is there any chance you've read the letter from her brother?"
"I have, actually...."
"Well, can you tell me in general what it says?"
"You'll have to read that letter when you get back, but I wish you didn't have to. Honestly. It's awful. The brother was telling Santa he'd asked for a sister, but this was the sister he got and he hated her and hated Santa, and the letter was a demand that Santa take the sister back, or else."

Whoa. Santa really has some extreme situations to deal with!! I was feeling like I'd been chosen to help with something that was over my head, but then I realized that there are a lot of crazy families out there, and crazy situations at Christmas, and that all I can do is try. I mean, it IS my job, after all. So I got back, read the letter (which was horrible), wrote my report, and wrote a personal Christmas card to the girl and sent her an album of songs like the one I sang to her that she liked, and a large book with lots of pictures of dancers dancing.
It turns out Santa wrote back to that boy himself. And he must have made a huge impact, whatever he said, because we just received an apology with a picture of the boy dancing with his sister at their house last night.

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