The “Yellow Brick Road” of Development; Different Route, Different Rules

The “Yellow Brick Road” was a familiar phrase that was a treat to watch for my brother and I growing up. Essentially,  Dorthy needed to and wanted to go home. She ended up in an unfamiliar, unpredictable place and apparently ,the “Yellow Brick Road” wouldn’t get her directly home, but it would get her to someone that could tell her the way. Along the way, she meets companions, not people, but typical personalities in a-typical bodies who accompany her. In the end, Dorthy’s  trip home is just a dream, and as we know, although dreams originate within us, they take an unpredictable, a-typical route of their own.

I like this comparison to the development of an autistic child. We know there is a broad spectrum, but essentially, just like all children, they grow up and their hopeful destination is the same, as typical children – as much independence as possible. However their pathway there is different, and unique. Their bodies grow bigger, and they each have their own personality. Their individual pathways that accompany their development can be, like a dream, unpredictable with a life of it’s own.

Sometimes our view of what is  “appropriate” for a child needs to be adjusted. This week a common concern was posed to me by a child’s worker was. A tss worker, who’s original training was with nuero-typical children came to me perplexed. Her four year old, non-verbal client was beginning to bite. After seeing “Ralph” in Music Therapy and watching him happily mouth everything, I asked a few questions. What I had concluded was progress. But would this be considered progress in the classroom?

The aid’s concern were that this little boy had given up a pacifier in September, it was now April and he was mouthing everything. He was biting, we concluded, when frustrated. He would not sit for circle time as he passively did previously in the school year. Ralph wanted to be moving and was becoming very vocal. What was his behavior communicating?

I explained to her that, although for a typical  four year old, this was not acceptable classroom behavior, for Ralph this was good news. It appeared that Ralph was gaining awareness, including awareness of some kind of sensations in his mouth. He was not selective, nor angry with his biting, he was being reactive. When he was being pushed to do something he did not want, biting was not a thought out behavior, it was a sensory based, immediate reaction for a boy who could not express it. The need to constantly have things in his mouth was a new sensory type of awareness. This awareness not to blankly sit was an energy to keep  moving. I compared it to the energy you get from exercising.  The kind of energy that makes  you alert, happy and want to keep going. This movement was sending constant messages to his brain, keeping him alert and aware. Unfortunately, for now, it does make classroom behavior a little more challenging, but not impossible. His team gave him a rubber tube to chew thus feeding the  mouthing sensation and keeping him aware.

In Music Therapy, I played music to support Ralph’s activity. Ralph frequently vocally imitates short strings of pitches being sung, or the contour of what is being sung. This is exciting news, because instead of the random recent babbling he had been doing, his vocalizations were beginning to take on some structure.

I think sometimes we have to be careful when applying behavioral techniques to what we’ve known has worked with typical children. We really need to know and see the autistic individual. What was his behavior like before, what is it like now, what purpose does it serve.? Certainly for a typical four year old biting and sudden non-compliant  behavior should cause concern. What is that behavior communicating? But possibly in the autistic child, the same behavior may be serving a very helpful purpose, his/her “Yellow brick road” to development. We would not be terribly concerned with an infant who is going through a stage of temporary biting while cutting teeth. Certainly there is an accentuated awareness and sensation in the mouth at this time. Although, sensorily, this is where Ralph appears to be, that does not mean that is where he is cognitively. Most of use who work with autistic individuals agree, usually people on the spectrum know much more than they can accurately demonstrate. Once again, their Yellow Brick Road, different routes, different rules.

It is a matter of perspective. I don’t think the proverbial “Box” included autistic individuals. It is truly necessary to look outside, beyond the “box”. We need to take a different path, apply different rules of learning. At the end of the yellow brick road, was not home for Dorthy. But in the end it was all a dream. Life for our autistic community may exist like a dream, unpredictable , but it is not a dream, it is their home.

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