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Waking Up James

By Charlotte Palumbo

When I first met seven-year-old James, he showed definite signs of autistic behavior: no eye contact, random speech, inability to answer “yes” or “no” appropriately. He did not use pronouns, including “I.” He would aggressively thrust his fingers at people, and pull toys apart with those same intense finger movements.

After careful observation and reflection, I found ways to engage this behavior at a meaningful level. Peeling an orange, for example, turned his intense finger movements into an acceptable human function. At the end of the Functional Integration® lesson we would peel an orange together. Slowly and meticulously James peeled the orange, allowing me to start the initial peeling, then he completed it. Step by step, we established non-verbal communication. James still could not skip. He could not hop alternately on each foot. When he wanted to move fast, he would go off in an undifferentiated gallop. Now, James loved to jump on my mini trampoline. He used to refer to our sessions as “Jump, Jump, Jump.” First he jumped hard and high on both feet. As the lessons continued, he was able to jump on one foot. Then the other. And finally to switch feet - to alternately hop on one foot and then the other. This easily translated into skipping.

As James mastered skipping, I decided to use his new skill to wake up his social awareness. I joined him in the skipping. His excitement grew: someone was playing with him! I taught him a skipping nursery rhyme, letting him fill in the words until he learned it. With the introduction of rhythmic language, his speech and voice became stronger.

I upped the ante. I took him into the outside hallways of my office. The long corridors of the old building echoed our sounds. We skipped from one end to the other. His joyful sounds attracted the attention of other occupants as they peeked out the door to see what the commotion was about. Later, they looked just to see this child joyfully playing. (Or was it just to see me skipping?)

Once James skipped far ahead of me and disappeared around the corner. My heart skipped a beat - what if he found the fire escape or some other disaster? When I got there he was hiding, playing hide-and-go-seek with me. He looked me directly in the eyes and laughed and laughed. James had moved from self-absorption to the world of human
communication.

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