Steven’s Story: A Child on the Autism Spectrum
When I first met Steven, he was 3 years old, non-verbal, and had limited communicative interactions. It was difficult to engage Steven as his preference was for solitary play. His play was characterized primarily by repetitive actions on objects (i.e. putting blocks in and out of their container), typical for children with ASD.
Upon observation, I noted that Steven had a fascination with books. He had quite an impressive library for a 3-year-old. I noticed too, that Steven had numerous puzzles and toys with letters and seemed preoccupied with these objects. I then began to assess his letter and word recognition skills and discovered that he was indeed able to read a substantial number of written forms. Hyperlexia (an above average ability to read accompanied with a below average ability to understand spoken language) is seen frequently in individuals with ASD.
Excited by this finding, I immediately incorporated words into his therapy sessions. I asked Steven’s mother if the school he attended knew he could read, and if they were using his word skills to help him. She replied that the staff said that Steven was only 3, and he shouldn’t be reading yet. Consequently, this uncanny ability was ignored. In time, when the school realized what Steven was able to achieve, it changed its position.
Therapy began by coupling objects in Steven’s environment with their corresponding written word. Soon Steven’s room was covered with index cards labeling its contents. Every object, action, and activity was presented with orthographic (written) cues. Within play context, Steven was taught to point to words to request a desired objects or actions with me. His vocabulary soared as did his ability to engage in social and communicative interactions.
I developed a communication word board for Steven out of cardboard. (These were days before the iPad). After only one year of therapy, Steven was communicating in multi-word sentences via his word board. By the time Steven was 5, he was verbalizing while using visual prompts, and he had continued to make extraordinary gains socially.
Soon after, he no longer required written cues to verbalize. At the end of my 6 years as a therapist with Steven, he presented as highly verbal and communicative, although his language was often perseverative (repetitious), and egocentric. He displayed a preoccupation for a variety of topics (i.e. geography, cars) for which he had an exceptional knowledge base.
One day, 15 years later, I received a friend request on Facebook from Steven, and a subsequent phone call. While he continued to display autistic features (obsession with various topics, difficulty with using language appropriately in social manner), to my delight, I discovered that Steven went on to earn a college degree and was working in the computer field.
Steven’s story is remarkable and demonstrates how capitalizing on a child’s skills and interests can be a springboard for unlocking his or her full potential.
What if Steven’s special abilities had been ignored?
Susan Faine-Hoddeson, M.A. CCC-SLP is a speech-language pathologist in Westchester County with more than 25 years of experience with expertise in facilitating communicative and social competence with youngsters on the autism spectrum.