Mitra Ahani, MA, CCC-SLP
Each and every one of my students have inspired me, amazed me and humbled me. I’ll share with you a story of inspiration and education about one of my students, a boy who has learnt as much from us as he has taught us.
Jimmy was a mischievous boy from the start. When I met him, he was 8 and already teasing us. A group of us sat at a table while he whispered in his native language to his mother. I asked her what he was saying and she responded “Who stinks?” This was a rote phrase he used to be silly. Not only was he funny, he was also the master of manipulation. He worked us all over to create the environment he wanted. He was bubbling over with potential and yet, pretending he couldn’t do much. At times, he would lie on the ground and refuse to get up. When he spoke, it was always in a whisper and his lips would barely move. When asked to carry something or to help, his hands would go limp instantly.
Initially, he would rarely respond to our comments or questions. When he did, it was barely audible. He asked to do the same things over and over and would be sure to cut you out of the interaction as soon as he got what he wanted. But, we never gave up on Jimmy. In the beginning, he only wanted to paint paper orange. “Paint” he would say in a whisper. I would pull out the paintbrush, paints, paper and everything else I could think of to expand this activity. But, for months he painted entire pieces of paper orange. No design, never a different color, just the entire piece of paper orange. No matter how much I encouraged him, he refused to vary this routine. Finally, after months, I convinced him to draw a shape using pastels and use orange watercolor to paint over. He resisted at first, but ultimately gave in. This was after months of orange paper painting. I was thrilled! It was the start of many negotiations for us.
At 16, he’s a very different young man. He no longer whispers, he speaks loud and clear. In fact, sometimes he calls me from another room. I remember the first time I heard “Mitra! Mitra!”. It was so exciting! I couldn’t help reflect for a moment about the boy who only spoke in a whisper and would do his best to exclude me from everything. He works hard to generate language. We give him time and space to respond and we appreciate and respect his process. We listen to what he wants and if it isn’t something we can give or do, we always explain why. Sometimes he asks over and over (and over) again, but we always explain.
Jimmy has taught us many of the secrets of success. We allow him to make choices, encourage him to communicate to connect and make sure we celebrate his successes. He reminds us that having fun is an essential component of developing language and communication that is meaningful. Listening to him and following through provides the foundation for him to do the same with us. We allow him to create routines, and then challenge him to break them. After all, the ability to handle change is a challenge to most of us. To break the comfort and safety of routine is a lot to ask of someone with autism. When it is done with respect, encouragement and patience it can be successful. Jimmy taught us that patience was a gift that would keep on giving.
I’d be remiss to take all the credit here. His true pioneers are his parents. He has parents who stop at nothing to provide him with a home full of love, acceptance and encouragement. He has been blessed with wonderful teachers, therapists and aides as well. We’ve been lucky to have a wonderful community of business merchants that knew we were working on communication, money and rules of engagement out in the real world. His success is a measure of a community gathering together to support each other live meaningful lives and thrive.
Mitra Ahani is the founder of Route 2 Language (R2L), which originated in San Mateo and now operates also in San Jose at Thrive Therapy and Social Center. Mitra owns and operates Thrive with her husband David Tollner.