March 31, 2009

Austin Road Show

Originally uploaded by Citizen Rob
It's an exciting week for us as the Rummel-Hudson take to the road.

We're heading back to Austin, a town that generates a lot of mixed feelings for us. On one hand, everyone knows how hipster cool Austin is. by golly, and having been in suburban Plano for a few years now, some hipster cool sounds like a nice change of scenery for a few days. On the other hand, it was Schuyler's Austin-area school that failed her so miserably, and Plano's remarkable program that gave so much of her future back to her, so I suppose we're returning with a little bit of "How do you like us now?" going on. Like the Prodigal Son, if he'd gone off and made it big and was just coming back to show his dad what an asshole the old man turned out to be.

We're going back for two events. On Thursday morning, I'll be giving the keynote address at the Texas Speech-Language-Hearing Association Convention, followed by at least one and possibly two book signing sessions with Schuyler. TSHA is the professional organization for speech-language pathologists and audiologists in Texas. This is one of the larger conventions of its kind in the country, and yesterday I was told that so far, about 2100 people have registered to attend the keynote session on Thursday morning. That's a lot of people. Yeah. A lot of people.

Oh, sorry. Paralyzed for just a moment there. Moving right along.

On Friday evening, I'll be speaking and signing copies of Schuyler's Monster at BookPeople, one of my favorite places in Austin. It's one of the more venerated independent bookstores in the country, and I'm really happy to be appearing there. I can't imagine I'll be doing very many more bookstore appearances for this book, after all; it's been out for over a year and I've done a LOT of them already. If this is to be my last bookstore appearance, I feel like it's a good place to end.

So if you're in the Austin area this week, I hope you'll come see us. Julie and Schuyler will be there for both events, which is always a selling point for these things. We'll be easy to pick out of a crowd. Look for the hot pink Big Box of Words.

March 26, 2009

Big Box 2.0

This isn't a demonstration video of Schuyler using her new speech device (which she has named "Pinkessa", by the way). She doesn't really do much here other than play around with it a little. It hasn't been programmed for her yet, and of course we still have to figure out how all the new features work. Our local PRC rep is going to go to Schuyler's school today to set it up and show her teachers the new stuff, but for the time being, I think Julie and I are on our own. That's fine; we're pretty smart people.

No, this video is purely for the joy of watching Schuyler see her new Vantage Lite for the first time. For a nonverbal kid, she says "This is so cool!" pretty damn clearly.

Yesterday was a good day.

March 25, 2009


It is pink. It is very very pink. I mean, you see photos in a catalogue and you say "Oh, yeah. That's pink." But in person, up close? It is crazy cool Schuyler pink.

Schuyler hasn't seen it yet; she's not expecting it until Friday. She'll be home from school soon, and I can only imagine how messy it's going to be when her head explodes.


She digs it. A LOT.

March 21, 2009

Of Loopholes and Boxes of Pink

A week from now, a box should be arriving from Wooster, Ohio. Inside that box will be something that I wasn't sure we'd see any time soon, and it will be arriving under very different circumstances, in a differently life even, than the last box we received from Wooster.

The box will contain Schuyler's new Big Box of Words.

When I mentioned the fact that Schuyler had been approved for funding for the device, I got a lot of questions about it. I thought it would be helpful for some of you if I devoted an entire post to this.

First of all, the device itself. It is the Vantage Lite, built by the Prentke Romich Company, and it is basically the next generation of what Schuyler has now. It will communicate the same way, using PRC's Unity® language system, but with a lot of new features and capabilities. This is what I'm reading (and possibly getting some of this wrong, sorry if my information turns out to be less than accurate):

  • The Vantage Lite adds a vocabulary setting -- a 60-key sequence -- to bridge the gap between the simple 45-key setting that Schuyler started on and the 84-key she uses now. Not a benefit for Schuyler, who has been using the 84-key setting for most of her time with the BBoW, but I think it's a good transitional step. That change was a big one and took a while for Schuyler to become comfortable with.
  • It has 64k graphic capability, up from 256 colors on Schuyler's device.
  • It has something new called Visual Scenes, which allows the user to show large pictures superimposed on the key layout. Say Schuyler has a photo of her family that she wants to display. In Visual Scenes, that photo can take up the better part of the screen, with perhaps some buttons beside it that can be programmed either with words or phrases describing the scene or giving further information. Additionally, the key spaces under the photo can be programmed to identify the subjects of the photo and speak them. Click on my fat head in the photo, and the device will say "Daddy". Think of how tagging works in Facebook and you'll get a pretty good idea of how this works. Now the device is more than just a way to speak. It can become an important digital assistant. The possibilities for school alone are pretty amazing. For example, Schuyler can now give oral reports with multimedia in a way that would have been impossible before.
  • Vocabulary Builder now allows AAC professionals (and busybody, know-it-all parents) to teach vocabulary in smaller, more manageable pieces. A text file can be imported into the Vantage Lite with a vocabulary limited to whatever the user requires or can handle at that stage. Vocabulary Builder matches that list against its own stored vocabulary, and any words not on that list are masked from the available vocabulary. This simplifies the search task and reinforces the motor patterning for accessing those target words. Again, not for Schuyler, but it might have made the early days easier for her. I can see how it would be a valuable tool, and it addresses some criticisms of the PRC devices that claim it can be overwhelming and difficult to learn. (I don't agree with those criticisms, but I understand where they come from.)
  • There's a brighter display with better backlighting. (Might Schuyler finally be able to use her device outside, in the sunlight? Perhaps!)
  • It now has something called Simple Toolbox, which is an alternative to the sometimes daunting Full Toolbox. Selecting this option gives you fewer, more often used menus and functions. (I suspect this is an option mostly utilized by parents.)
  • The Vantage Lite has built-in Bluetooth. This could be a very big deal. I have to confess now that I apparently suffered some sort of head injury at some point that turned the part of my brain that should understand Bluetooth into a soft, useless puddle in my head. So I can't explain much about it yet.
  • The device itself has been redesigned to be more durable and also much more portable.

I'm also pleased to report that it looks much less... medical, I guess. There's been a growing industry-wide recognition of social stigma as probably the greatest barrier to a lot of kids, many of whom resist AAC technology because they feel it calls attention to their disability. That has certainly been the case with Schuyler on some level from time to time. The simple act of making it look more like a kid's other digital devices (including making it available in different colors) might just go a long way towards making it a more welcome part of their life.

Do you want Schuyler to fall in love with her speech device? Make it pink.

Now, about the funding.

The state of Texas has something called the Specialized Telecommunications Assistance Program, or STAP. It provides financial assistance to people with disabilities to allow them to purchase telecommunications devices and services that allow them to use telephone networks to communicate. Qualified state residents can apply for these funds once every five years. (It was around back when we were looking to get Schuyler's existing device, but the waiting period at that time was six months or more. It's now down to a few weeks. Fewer than three for us, actually.)

So yeah. That doesn't sound like it really applies to Schuyler, does it? Well, the truth is, STAP isn't actually intended to fund AAC devices. It's supposed to be used to buy phone systems for people who have difficulty using the phone. The loophole that allows AAC funding is simple. How can you use the phone if you can't talk? Many AAC devices have been adapted for use with telephone equipment, and those devices are available through STAP, or its equivalent, in many states. And that adaptation is as simple as having an external speaker jack. If you can plug in a speaker, then you can plug in a phone adapter. And if you can do that, suddenly you qualify for STAP.

Every state states should have STAP or a similar program (check with your state's Public Utilities Commission), but apparently many of them won't fund AAC devices, or will only buy very limited equipment. Texas got it right for kids like Schuyler, but they did it by accident, I guess.

And that, my friends, is how every so often, the parents of broken children win. We can't fight the system head on. We look for holes in the Armor of No, and we stab with our rubber swords just as hard as we can.

March 20, 2009

My thoughts on a dumb joke

Okay, so I keep getting email about President Obama's "Special Olympics" remark on Leno last night, so I thought I'd address it here. I don't seem to be seeing a lot of reactions from other special needs parenting writers on the subject, but I suspect that's because most of them see the big picture.

So here's my take, in handy bulleted form:
  • It wasn't a very clever remark, and it was obviously ill-advised. I'm not sure I found it outright offensive, but it was extremely disappointing. I was really surprised, and remain so today.
  • His quick response showed sensitivity, sincerity and an understanding of just how badly he'd screwed up. If nothing else, he at least understood how badly it would be taken, which is something, anyway.
  • Of the nearly $44 billion dollars in federal stimulus aid to schools that's going to be available to schools in the next month or so, $6.1 billion of that will go to special education, specifically to augment funding for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. This money can't be used by state and local governments to replace money that they allocate to special education, so it represents a real and significant increase in funding.
  • President Obama has pledged to fully fund IDEA during his presidency. (Congress originally promised to fund forty percent of IDEA, with the rest coming from state and local governments, but actual federal funding has never exceeded eighteen percent.) Will he deliver on this promise? I suspect, given his record so far, that he'll try a lot harder than anyone else who has occupied the office since IDEA was signed into law in 1975.
So my opinion on the Leno gaffe? Whatever. Given the choice between insincere platitudes from the likes of Sarah "I'm a FRIEND to the special needs parent; I'm one of YOU" Palin (who just rejected the part of the stimulus package -- $160 million for education -- that would have increased training for special education teachers in Alaska), and a president who made a really stupid joke while actually helping these kids in a real way, I think only an ideologue would choose the former.

And honestly, you should hear some of the jokes that special needs parents make when the rest of you aren't around. If the president makes good on his promises to us, he's welcome to sit at our table and share in our gallows humor, too.

March 17, 2009


Originally uploaded by Citizen Rob
Today we got word that Schuyler was officially approved for a next generation speech device.

Did a state agency really just come through for us on the first try, in a timely manner? I'll truly believe it when this paper voucher turns into a new Big Box of Words. For now, however, we are allowing ourselves a little bit of celebration and a lot of renewed purpose towards helping Schuyler accept and flourish on this unnatural way of communicating.

Besides, the new one comes in pink. God help us all.

March 13, 2009

Meeting the Big Box of Words, 2005

In Chapter 19 of Schuyler's Monster, "A Big Box of Words", I described a short video I'd taken of then-five year-old Schuyler doing some fundamentals on a PRC speech device. She was waiting for her own Vantage, her Big Box of Words, which was still being manufactured for her. She'd been on this loaner for only two weeks.

I'd thrown together this video because Schuyler's IEP meeting was coming up, and I had a suspicion (ultimately correct, as it turned out) that the Manor school district's technology advisor was going to report that Schuyler was incapable of using the high-end device. I wanted to show the members of Schuyler's support team how she used the device in a number of ways, including some one-hit preprogrammed answers, simple sentences about what she wanted to eat, and descriptions of things like colors that required her to navigate through subdirectories. The video made a huge impression and changed many of the attitudes towards Schuyler's use of AAC technology, although ultimately the Austin area school was a failure and we ended up here in Plano.

As I was looking something up for the speech I'm working on for the TSHA Conference next month, I was surprised to discover that I actually still have that video file. I thought you might like to see it for yourselves, if for no other reason than to see little five year-old Schuyler. This really was the beginning of something important for her, and after all the computer crashes and such over the past four years, I was surprised and happy to see that I still had it tucked away.

* * *

(Excerpt from Schuyler's Monster: A Father's Journey with His Wordless Daughter, Chapter 19 "A Big Box of Words")


Schuyler standing beside table
Me: Hello!
Schuyler: (waving) Hi!
Me: Okay, can you come show me your words now?
Schuyler sits down, in front of her Prentke-Romich Vantage Plus
Me: I'm going to ask you some questions now. What is your name?
Schuyler: (touches screen a few times to get to the preprogrammed greetings page) My name is Schuyler.
Me: And how old are you?
Schuyler: I am five years old.
Me: Now, who am I?
Schuyler: (points at me and smiles) Oo! ("You.") Daddy. (points again) Oo!
Me: Thank you! (places a purple rubber duck on table) What color is this?
Schuyler: (navigates to colors page) Color pink. (hits backspace, corrects herself) Color purple.
Me: All right, very good! (Schuyler picks up duck and makes it hop away as I speak.) Where do you live?
Schuyler: (navigates back to greetings page) I live in Austin.
Me: Are you hungry, Schuyler?
Schuyler: Yeah! (navigates to main page) Eat.
Me: What do you want to eat?
Schuyler: Pizza.
Me: Say the whole thing, please. Show me the whole thing.
Schuyler: I want eat pizza.
Me: Very good! (Schuyler laughs and claps.) Are you thirsty?
Schuyler: Drink water.
Me: You want water? Can you say the whole thing?
Schuyler: I want drink water.
Me: Okay, good, we'll do that in just a minute. Do you have a doggy?
Schuyler: (nodding head) Yeah. (navigates back to preprogrammed greetings page) I have a dog named Lulu.
Me: Schuyler, can you tell me what this is? What does it do?
Schuyler: I use this language communication device to help me speak.
Me: Schuyler? What does a monster say?
Schuyler: (giggles and navigates to main page, hits button twice by mistake) Rire! Rire! (claps happily)
Me: Okay, Schuyler, we're all done, can you say goodbye?
Schuyler: Goodbye. (waves to camera) Aye, ah-ee! Aye, ah-ee! ("Bye, Daddy")

The lights came up and the members of Schuyler's IEP team began murmuring among themselves. Margaret sat quietly, her face unreadable. Tammy looked over at me and smiled.

"So that's what she's doing at home," I said, closing my laptop, on which I'd been showing the brief movie they'd just watched. "I shot this two nights ago. She had the loaner device for two weeks, and she had just been using her own Vantage for two days. You can see that even now, she's able to answer questions using preprogrammed answers, and she's able to find and identify colors. She's using multiple levels to find food menu selections, and she's putting her choices into very simple sentences. And she's enthusiastic about it, she uses it now to answer questions that she's perfectly capable of signing. She's just barely getting started on this."

Tammy nodded. "Mr. Hudson, this is great, I'm so glad you brought this in. I've been reading Margaret's report, and I have to admit, I was concerned."

"We just read that this morning," Julie said. "I don't understand what's different at home from what happens when she's here."

I knew exactly what she was talking about.

Static one-hit voice output devices can be utilized successfully if supported in the specific setting. Preprogramming and setup would be necessary to ensure that Schuyler could have powerful and successful communication when she activates the button. The high tech dynamic devices have not been more successful, nor provided clearer communication than her other communication modes. Due to her need to have more opportunity [sic] learning the system, learning the language, and recognizing the power of a voice output, all modes should be used for communication.

Inconsistent willingness to use the devices has also hindered progress. However, Schuyler has great potential to use a dynamic voice output system in the future. Thus, even though the dynamic voice output is not educationally necessary at this point, she would greatly benefit from early intervention and training on the dynamic voice output systems for her future communication.

"I didn't know what Margaret's report said before I videotaped Schuyler on her device," I said, "but I'm glad I did it now. I'm concerned about this ‘inconsistent willingness' to use the device. If there's a difference between what's happening at home and what's happening here, I'd like to bridge that so she's experiencing roughly the same thing in both places. She's thrilled to use it at home. I'd like her to feel that same excitement when she's here."

The meeting went our way, I'm happy to say. The movie had spoken for itself, and while Margaret was still a bit of a pill for the rest of the meeting, she didn't have any serious objections to embracing the device as part of Schuyler's curriculum. Indeed, she'd already said as much, if grudgingly, at the conclusion of her report.

"There's one last issue to work out," said Tammy. "I know you want Schuyler to attend summer school classes this summer, and that was up in the air. The issue is this: will a child regress beyond what we consider to be typical during the summer, to such an extent that she will fall significantly behind her peers in the fall? The irony for Schuyler is that she has done so well on her device and in her general school work that it would be hard to justify her inclusion in summer school.

"However," she continued, "Michelle has suggested that since Schuyler is so new to her device, we should make a request to the board that she be included in the summer program in order to continue her training. I'll let you know in the next day or two whether that's going to happen."

And just like that, the most productive IEP we'd ever had was over. We shook everyone's hand and accepted congratulations. Before people could leave, I stood up.

"The only other thing I want to mention is that when this report says that Schuyler's device is not ‘educationally necessary,' I hope you all understand that we believe otherwise. It is our position that this is the most promising development yet for her, and we'd like for everyone to be on the same page."

It was a snotty way to end things, and perhaps had a touch of "How do you like her now?" but we had fought so hard to get Schuyler that device, and if I hadn't had a big fancy Web site with generous readers, we would have lost that fight. When we stepped back and looked at the whole story of the Big Box of Words, from the earliest discussions to the moment Schuyler's little fingers touched the screen, one thing was consistently true and was now being proven by her own success.

They were wrong about her, and we were right.

(Schuyler's Monster: A Father's Journey with His Wordless Daughter, St. Martin's Press. Copyright 2008 Robert Rummel Hudson )

March 10, 2009

Meeting Swee

Schuyler got it into her head that she wanted a guinea pig after seeing babies at the pet store over the weekend. After she saw an adult yesterday, however, she was sufficiently intimidated by their size and downgraded her request to a hamster. Given the amount of experience we've had with hamsters and the number of old cages we had sitting in storage, we considered this a win.

Schuyler named her new hamster "Swee". Well, originally it was something like "Sweexblizzyxl", sounded out on her Big Box of Words, but she shortened it. I think Swee is a fine name for a hamster.

That's the rhythm of life with Schuyler. Occasionally her monster gets all the attention, but today it's a baby hamster named Swee.

Casting of pods

If you liked my last entry but found the whole "left-to-right eyeball tracking" thing to be a distraction, you'll be pleased to know that QN Podcast (The Podcast Formerly Known as Quirky Nomads) featured the entry in their March 9th edition, "Ambush". Thanks, Sage!

You'll be even more happy to know that it's not my yokelly voice this time. It's encouraging how much smarter I sound when someone else is reading.

March 3, 2009

Ambush my heart

Pondering monsters
Originally uploaded by Citizen Rob
Sometimes it sort of sneaks up on us.

Schuyler came home from school without her speech device today, which as you can imagine is a pretty big deal. We were stern with her, in that way that is probably a necessary part of the parenting process but which makes me a little queasy, and we found ourselves back at her school at seven o'clock at night. A janitor let us in, and Schuyler took us to her mainstream classroom. And there it was, the Big Box of Words, along with her lunchbox and a few other items that should have come home with her.

We led her miserably back to the car, lecturing her sternly the whole way. When we got to the car, we talked to her about the importance of having her device with her at all times, both because of her communication needs and the fact that, yeah, she's a nine year-old kid walking around with a $7500 piece of electronic equipment.

Throughout the questions and the admonishments, Schuyler sat quietly, her face downcast and sad. I can't look at her face when I talk to her in those moments, because I'll fold like a house of cards if I see those eyes.

It occurred to Julie that if Schuyler was leaving her device in her last classroom, she must not be using it in her after school program. That's not incredibly surprising since they mostly play and run around, in a rough and tumble environment that doesn't lend itself to using the BBoW. But in addition to any emergency communication needs, Schuyler also does her homework after school, so she needed to have the device nearby and accessible.

"Do you ever even use your device after school?" Julie asked her.

"No," Schuyler answered sadly.

"No? Why not?"

Schuyler hesitated, then started punching buttons on the device. When she was done, she looked up at us, with an expression of sadness and maybe even defeat, a look I very rarely see in her eyes. Rarely, but occasionally. When I see it, I take notice. She touched the speech button.

"They don't know I can't talk."

Yeah, sometimes it sneaks up on us.

I just started to cry, out of nowhere. Julie held it together a little longer, but not long. "She knows," Julie said. "She really understands, doesn't she?"

There was nothing left to say after that. I gave Schuyler a hug, a long one, and we drove in silence to the Purple Cow, her favorite restaurant.

Later, I asked Schuyler who she was talking about. "Who doesn't know you can't talk?"

She signed "friends".

And so it turns out that a father's heart can break twice in one night.

March 1, 2009

Reality Check

As soon as I posted video of Schuyler communicating, the comments began. There were a lot of them saying something similar.

"I thought not only the 'good morning' but the 'what's that?' and the 'I want that' were pretty easily understood."

"Yes - I came here to comment on how 'good morning', 'what's that?' and 'I want that' were all perfectly clear, at least through that recording and the medium of the internet."

"Her speech was clearer than I expected, too, especially considering she had just woken up. I heard the 'Good morning,' 'What's that,' 'I want that' and I thought she said 'I fell on the floor.'"

"That 'good morning' sounded clearer than I sound when someone wakes me up!"

"She was pretty clear. I understood her."

"Like everyone says, those phrases were very clear!"

"Extremely clear AND right when she was waking up!"

"I could understand everything."

"Great job Schuyler... I can understand you just fine..."

"She speaks a lot more clearly than I imagined she did - I, too, can understand most of what she says."

I knew what people were saying, and I appreciated the sentiments behind the statements, and also the sort of literal truth of what they were saying. Still, at one point, I tried to moderate the tone a little with a "reality check" observation:

Her speech is getting a little clearer as she gets older, which is good news and a little bit of a surprise. She still does much better when you have a fairly good idea what she's likely to be saying. And it's funny how much of what we say in a day falls within the bounds of often-repeated "catch phrases" like "good morning and "i love you".

When she launches into a monologue about something at random and you don't have any context for it, it goes back to being pure Martian. Well, baby steps.

But I knew it was only a matter of time before someone said it:

After reading this blog for so long, I was really surprised at how easy it was to understand Schuyler's speech. Yes, she's missing some consonants, but she is much more understandable than you have been making her sound in your descriptions.

The tone was friendly, but the implied message was clear: I have been misrepresenting the extent of Schuyler's disability.

I was struggling to find the right words to respond to this, but then, two commenters on the blog spelled it out better than I could, and with the added advantage of an outside perspective.

The first was anonymous, not surprising since he/she was discussing a family member:
My dad, who is almost completely disabled and has an overwhelming number of health problems, is a highly intelligent man whose physical problems have begun to overwhelm his brain. Even on very bad days, he has an uncanny ability to appear to be communicating far better than he is actually managing to do.

He does this in part by accessing rote forms of speech that let people assume that he's responded appropriately, even if he has not actually followed the conversation correctly. People are often poor listeners, and frequently "hear" what they expect to, rather than what was actually said. This doesn't mean, though, that the speaker has been understood.

I am frequently amazed when other people tell me how lucid he is on days when he most certainly is not. The difference is very clear to me, even if others can't see it in the course of the sort of formulaic conversational exchanges that make up most of his day in his nursing home.

I, too, am surprised that some of Schuyler's speech is so clear, but it seems to me that much of what is clear is also very basic. This in no way diminishes the wonder of that clarity, but the ability to say phrases like "good morning" and that wonderful word "Mama" doesn't imply that discussing ideas or other complexities are also possible.

You describe Schuyler so well that it's impossible not to feel that we know her, at least a little. Your writing about her acknowledges the complexities of her character and her life; I don't see that you have in any way implied that her verbal expression is radically different than what we see here.

It's fairly easy to assume what a bouncy, bright child may be saying at a mall, just as it's easy for people to assume that they know what my dad is saying about his day. But it's quite another matter to discuss ideas, feelings, or interpretations when there are physical limitations to speech. And that, I think, you describe very well in your writings.

And Karen is even more direct:

Well, I'm kind of going against the flow here, but I thought Schuyler was understandable if you were listening carefully, if you knew the context of the situation, and if you had a pretty good idea of what she would say. But if I were to listen to an audio recording of her speaking and didn't have any clues as to what she might be speaking about, I would have had a very hard time understanding her. Her "Good morning" in the previous post was clear, but most of what she said was in this post was understandable because of the context. Even with knowing the context of being in a mall, I can't imagine how complicated it would be if she'd said something like, "Hey Dad, did you remember that store we went to the last time we were here? I saw an ad for them on TV last night and they're having a sale on these really cool T-shirts. Can we go there after lunch and get one?"

And, though it pains me to say this, I didn't think she talked as much as a lot of neuro-typical nine-year-old girls would have in a similar situation. Maybe that's because of her personality. Some kids are more talkative than others. But it could also be because communicating (both verbally and through her BBOW) is frustrating. Certainly it would frustrate me to have to work at something that everyone else seems to do effortlessly. She's a lovely girl, and it's a joy to see and hear her. But I think it seems easy to understand her because a lot of us hear what we want to hear or expect to hear when we're talking to others. It must be hell for her when she wants to bring up a new subject, or have a lengthy in-depth conversation.
They both understand perfectly. They are both absolutely one hundred percent correct.

I understand the desire to hear clear, intelligible speech coming from Schuyler, and it is undeniable that her verbal communication has improved dramatically since we came to Plano and especially since she began using the Big Box of Words.

But there's a hard reality to Schuyler's communication, and some real limits to her spoken language, something that goes beyond "missing some consonants". (She's missing most of them, incidentally.) Acknowledging that particular reality doesn't close doors for her, and it doesn't mean giving up on her. The first step to helping Schuyler, however, comes in understanding exactly where she is and what her current limitations are. Wanting or even needing to believe the monster is smaller than it is, well, that's an impulse I understand completely.

But as far as Julie and I are concerned, sizing up that monster is an important first step. We need proper measurements in order to correctly tailor its Ass-beating Suit.

February 28, 2009

Mall monster

More video. Here's a peek at how Schuyler communicates in the course of a typical evening. She tells a little about herself, orders her dinner at a restaurant, and takes a slightly queasy spin with the camera.

February 26, 2009

Morning monster

I got a fun new Flip Video Mino camera (courtesy of Circuit City's sorrow), and sprung it on Schuyler this morning. She wasn't even remotely interested in getting out of bed until she saw a new gadget. She is her father's daughter.

(Listen for a surprisingly clear "Good Morning".)

February 25, 2009

"a point upon a map of fog..."

Note to my delicate and sensitive readers: 
So there's a part of my San Francisco Adventure Story that involves injury, blood, general nastiness, pain and even partial accidental amputation. I'll save that part for the end, so that those of you prone to the vapors can stop reading. (And also so my extra-nasty readers can skip ahead. You know who you are.)

My trip to the San Francisco Bay Area was, I believe, an outstanding success. I managed to schedule a surprising amount of productive-type behavior into five days, and I got to see a lot of what is an absolutely beautiful city, even when it's shrouded in rain. Which it was, by the way, beginning the day I arrived and lifting, I suspect, at roughly the same hour that my return flight took off.

The night before I left Texas, the Dallas area was rocked by tornados (tornadi?), so I don't know, maybe it's me.

I'd be the worst sort of jackass guest if I didn't stop right now and express my gratitude to Ian Golder and Monique van den Berg for putting me up (and putting up with me) for the duration of my stay. Five days is a long time to have a house guest, but they never complained and not even once gently suggested that perhaps I'd be more comfortable if I got a room at a hotel or one of the city's many fine homeless shelters. More importantly, their giant dog never tried to eat me, which I also consider the sign of a polite host.

(Actually, the truth is that I have something of a Bigdogaphobia, thanks to a horrible childhood attack by, ironically, the one breed of big dog that doesn't seem to bother me now, a Great Dane. I used to have scars on the back of my legs that told the tale, but I am far too old and fat to be able to look back there now. My thanks to Ian and Monique, and Goulash the Giant But Gentle Dogzilla, for being sensitive to my weird dog issues.)

The first night I was in town, I spoke to Monique's writing class at the College of San Mateo. If you're wondering what possible situation I might consider to be absolutely surreal, it might be speaking to a class that is studying personal narrative by way of my own book. Yes, my book was the assigned text; the students were reading it and taking tests about it and having classroom discussions about it. I could try to spin that experience into some fancy, existential parable, but in all honesty, it was just extremely damn cool to be me that evening. I highly recommend it.

I agreed to help workshop some of the personal narratives written by the students, and to be honest, I was nervous about it. I had no idea what I was going to say if I had to workshop an essay that was, well, bad. But here's the thing: none of them were. Everything I read had a real sense of voice; everything had something to say and a concept of how they wanted to express it. I was legitimately impressed, and only resented their youth a little. Damn kids.

The next day, we visited schools. You knew that already.

*          *          *

(photo by Monique van den Berg)

I'd never been to San Francisco before, but there are a number of people in the area whom I knew but had never met, in that nerdy internet way that was weird a decade ago but is just now The Way Things Are in the World. My signing at Book Passage in Corte Madera gave me the opportunity to meet some of them in the flesh, as well as see some people I'd met previously and at least one friend from high school. I know I'm going to screw this up and forget someone, but I'd like to thank Shannon, Ian & Monique, Annie, Kate, Alison, Halsted, Kara, Char, and the AMAZING Edith Meyer, who once again showed up with food, this time cookies, shortbread and a lemon loaf that I think I would have knocked down an old person to get to.

Most of all, however, there were two other special guests. Courtesy of Skype and a good sound system set up by Dana, the awesome events person from Book Passage, Julie and Schuyler appeared on my laptop and answered questions and generally charmed the pants off of everyone. So if you weren't there, well, you missed a lot of charmed, pantsless people. Your loss.

(photo by Shannon Kokoska)

*          *          *

The rest of my visit was vacation, really. We went to the Big Basin Redwoods State Park and saw many a mighty tree, and while I took lots of photos, it's impossible to get a sense of just how gigantic some of them really were. In person, it was "Holy shit, that's a big goddamn redwood!" When you look at the photos, it's more like "Oh, look. A pretty tree."

(photo by Monique van den Berg)

My last day in San Francisco was spent sightseeing in the city with Monique and attending a concert by the San Francisco Symphony, which was Monique's amazing Christmas present to me. The performance was conducted by Charles Dutoit, one of my favorite conductors who, with the Montreal Symphony, produced some of the best and most enduring recordings of the last thirty years. San Francisco Symphony performed Debussy's "Oh, look. A pretty deer.", Stravinsky's Symphony in C, and closed with Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade, which is frankly a much better piece that R-K really had any right to compose, based on the rest of his output. Don't get me wrong, Rimsky-Korsakov was a brilliant orchestrator and wrote some fine music, by golly, but in Scheherazade, he really stepped it up. He did us hyphenates proud.

And of course, we visited the Pirate Supply Store at 826 Valencia, which (for zoning purposes) serves as a legitimate business front for the writing center founded by Dave Eggers. I bought pirate flags and a t-shirt and the obligatory eye patch for Schuyler and Julie.

"Pillage before plunder, what a blunder.
Plunder before pillage, mission fulfillage."

I had a great time in San Francisco, and I'd love to return soon. There's a possibility that Schuyler might attend a summer camp for kids who use Big Boxes of Words, although I might have to discover buried treasure or lost mob money to make that a reality.

I hope it happens.

Okay, I mean it now. Tender-hearts stop reading now. I'm serious. If you don't like the rest of this, don't leave me any crybaby comments. You've been warned.

So yeah, I cut off the end of my finger.

The morning I left for California, I was packing my toiletries and had already put my razor in a side pocket of my little bathroom bag. I decided that it would be a good idea to store my toothbrush in the same pocket (NOTE: This was not actually a good idea), and as I pushed my toothbrush in, it stuck on something, my hand slipped, and my middle finger (aka "The Bird") on my right hand made a rather abrupt and rude introduction to the little Precision Trimmer blade on the top edge of my razor, which if you're into detail, is that funky five-blade "Fusion Power" thing from Gillette.

(Because, you know, it has five blades. How could I use something that just had four, or even three blades -- pshaw! -- all the while KNOWING that there were five blades out there, PLUS that one nasty little trimmer blade on top? Get fucking serious.)

I just went to the Gillette site to see what that little top blade is called, and ran across the following line in the ad: "So comfortable, you barely feel the blades."

I felt the blade.

Now, before you begin to wonder (as you inevitably will) if I immediately went to the emergency room, well, here's the thing. My plane was leaving in about an hour and a half. You just read about the wonderful time I had in San Francisco, and also how many professional commitments I had there. I couldn't just NOT go, all because I cut myself with my razor, and not even shaving but PACKING.

Also, in my own defense (and Julie can queasily back me up on this), it bled. A lot. So much so that I couldn't actually see what I had done. It hurt more than I thought a cut should hurt, and it would not stop bleeding for anything, no matter how much pressure I put on it. But still, I just thought it was a deep cut, right? And when we bandaged it up tightly, the pressure made the bleeding stop. I figured, it just needs some time to settle down. So we threw my bags in the car and drove to the airport, my finger hurting wildly but no longer squirting blood like a Monty Python sketch.

It wasn't until I got past security that I noticed that the bleeding had begun again, seeping through the bandages like, well, like a poorly bandaged wound that really should have been seen by a doctor. If before was a bad time to go have it looked at, then sitting outside my gate with my shoes off wasn't much better. I found a bathroom, decided against removing the bandages (which I still think was probably a smart move on my part, and one that my fellow travelers and bathroom-users would probably agree with) and simply applied MORE bandages on top on the poor little Dutchboy-like original strips that were bravely losing the fight against the flood.

Surprisingly, this second bit of first aid (would that make it second aid?) held, and I made my flight without incident. It wasn't until I attempted to change the bandages before class that I realized how bad it was.

Because it bled again. Badly. And now I saw why.

Okay, so first of all, sit down. Then imagine the very tip of your finger, or my finger really, if that makes you feel better about it. Imagine a piece about the size of a dime (which constitutes most of the tip of your finger, really) and about the thickness of two quarters. Now imagine it connected by a tiny piece of skin. Now imagine it NO LONGER connected by that tiny piece of skin. Imagine it instead stuck to the inside of a bloody bandage, a small not-bloody circle in the middle of a brownish-red tragedy.

And if you're REALLY into detail, also imagine taking your killer razor out of your bag to inexplicably use it against your own stubbly face, despite the fact that it has tasted human blood and may just want more more more. Upon examination, you find that it is surprisingly not at all bloody, because when you cut yourself, your "Ow ow, holy shit, ow motherfucker OW!" reflex kicked in quickly enough to get you to the sink before any real bleeding began. What you do find is what appears to be a small piece of clear plastic stuck in the blades. But when you fish it out, you remember that most clear plastic doesn't have little fingerprint ridges in it. Then you sit down again. And maybe not eat for the rest of the day.

Apparently I cut it twice. One was the big cut, and one was a little bit shaved off the tip, waiting for me to discover it later.

So yeah. I cut off the end of my finger.

Now, I didn't cut off a major, life-changing chunk of my finger. I'll have a flat spot, that's certain, but I can still count to ten and Schuyler can still paint all my fingernails. Still, the cut went deep into that part of the skin where the nerves live, and they do not like being exposed like that. Two weeks after the cut, it is healing up nicely (amazingly, no infection, which goes to show that God really does protect children and stupid people), but you know what?

It still hurts. A lot.

It looks sort of cool, though. I'll leave that to your imagination.

February 20, 2009

Monster Slayers by the Bay

When you're a special needs parent, a Shepherd of the Broken, and you finally find a school that seems to get your kid and is truly working for a greater good, it's so easy to feel like you're living a world apart. It seems fragile, as if the bubble in which you exist is the only one of its kind in the world, and that if it should pop, everything would be entirely and devastatingly lost.

And then you find other bubbles, other pockets where people are building their own similar worlds, and suddenly it feels like everything might just be okay, and that the world might just be getting incrementally better, despite all appearances to the contrary. The broken are being helped to their feet and into the world all over, it turns out, and while the lost still vastly outweigh the found, it's a start. It won't do forever, or even for long, but it'll do for now.

Last week, my friend Monique van den Berg and I were fortunate enough, thanks to the efforts of the Prentke Romich Company and particularly due to the work of PRC's Kara Bidstrup, to visit two programs in the San Francisco Bay Area that are not only doing the same kind of work as Schuyler's AAC program here in Plano, Texas, but have served as models for this program and many others. We met other teachers, ones who have been doing this work with kids, REAL kids in REAL schools, and pretty much for as long as the technology has been in development to do so.

Most of all, I met the kids.

The Bridge School in Hillsborough, California was founded in 1986. The idea was to create a learning environment where kids with complex communication needs could develop and thrive all the way to adulthood, largely through the application of augmentative and alternative communication. The school uses a multi-modal approach, similar to how Schuyler communicates through a combinations of her device, her sign language and her limited verbal skills.

Since the very beginning , the school has been funded at least in part thanks to the annual Bridge School Benefit Concert, thrown every fall by Neil Young and his friends. The lineup over the years has been pretty impressive, including (and I'm not even kidding here) Bruce Springsteen, Billy Idol, Bob Dylan, Jerry Garcia & Bob Weir, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, Tracy Chapman, Elvis Costello, Willie Nelson, Elton John, James Taylor, Simon & Garfunkel, Beck, Emmylou Harris, The Pretenders, David Bowie, The Smashing Pumpkins, Alanis Morissette, Dave Matthews Band, R.E.M., Sarah McLachlan, Barenaked Ladies, Eels, Sheryl Crow, Green Day, Lucinda Williams, Robin Williams, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Foo Fighters, Thom Yorke, LeAnn Rimes, Jack Johnson, Wilco, Counting Crows, Paul McCartney, Tony Bennett, John Mellencamp, Los Lobos, Norah Jones, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bright Eyes, Good Charlotte, Trent Reznor, Death Cab for Cutie, Gillian Welch, Devendra Banhart, Tom Waits with Kronos Quartet, John Mayer, Regina Spektor, Cat Power...

So yeah. The concert is a big deal. The bigger deal is what you find inside the school.

We met with the Bridge School's executive director, Dr. Vicki Casella, who was kind enough to take some time to explain the program, and then we were given a tour by Kristen Gray, the school's Outreach Program Manager. The Bridge School keeps a small student population, only fourteen kids at a time, but the program is a transitional one, with the goal of getting these kids back out into their community schools. The school supports about fifty kids outside of its small campus, and the logistics and resources and above all training required to do so must be daunting.

When I met the kids, I was suddenly aware of just how challenging a task this is for the Bridge School. Of the fourteen kids in the program, none were ambulatory and most presented physical challenges that could best be described as extreme. These are the cases that the Bridge School serves exclusively now. And yet every single one of them is learning to communicate, through a variety of creative techniques and strategies, all with the goal of graduating these kids from Bridge and transitioning them to their home school districts or other educational placements.

More similar to Schuyler's AAC classroom was our next destination. The TACLE program at Oakland's Redwood Heights Elementary is a program that was originally established in 1990 by the Bridge School, along with Oakland's Programs for Exceptional Children, California Children Services and Associates of Augmentative Communication and Technology Services. If the Bridge School is an island of specialized learning, then the TACLE program is an outpost, a fortress deep within neurotypical territory. Like Schuyler's class, these kids are integrated into the elementary school where they are housed. The teachers in the class, Stephanie Taymuree and Michele Caputo, were simply extraordinary. I'm not sure how to describe it except that the just GOT these kids. They understood exactly what the kids needed, they knew when to be calm and when to be excited, when to be "appropriate" and when to recognize the importance of a communication moment above all else. I found myself asking them questions about my own parenting approaches, questions I'd been carrying around for me for years without even realizing it.

Their skill and their commitment showed. It was clear in the enthusiasm of their students, many of whom lined up with their PRC Vantage speech devices to tell us the things that were fluttering in their heads like bats searching for a portal, looking to set those thoughts free. They used their devices to speak, sometimes in sentences and sometimes simply in excited, frantic strings of associated words, and despite the fact that many of them never even take their AAC devices home (due to occasionally difficult family lives at home), these kids were incredibly fired up about communicating electronically, to a degree that I'm embarrassed to say that I've not seen in Schuyler, perhaps ever.

By the end of the day, it had become clear to me that the teachers and therapists at Bridge and at the TACLE program are achieving their goals with persistence and patience and an overwhelming positivity. As I was introduced to these students, what I noticed most of all was the thing I always look for when I meet kids with disabilities. Regardless of their often extreme impairment or their difficult home situations, these kids are bright-eyed and forward leaning, excited about their surroundings and eager to break through or go around the walls that they've so often in the past found looming in their way.

If you've had any experience with good special education programs, you probably understand what I mean, just as any past exposure to a BAD program will have familiarized you with the dull-eyed, lethargic kids that populate those programs where teachers and therapists have, on some fundamental level, given up on their students and lost their faith. It's a kind of difference in a child's eyes and in their expressions; you see it in kids who are powerfully motivated and inspired rather than placated and underestimated and ultimately abandoned by their schools.

It's hard to describe, but I saw it in the eyes of the very first girl I met at Bridge. I guess the best way I can put it is that when I looked into her face and into those flashing eyes, behind the impairment and the physical manifestations of her own particular monster, I could see, with a sad and yet wonderful clarity, the little girl she was meant to be. You look into their eyes and you see them as they should have been, and as who they can be still in their own way. It's sad and it's wonderful, and I think perhaps most of all it's the thing that keeps these remarkable teachers and therapists coming back to work every day.

I understand how lucky we are. I know how fortunate Schuyler is, to be ambulatory and relatively unmarked by her monster in any significant physical way. She's nine years old now, and she's been in an excellent program for three and a half years. Schuyler finds a way to communicate now, and she may be delayed developmentally but it no longer feels like she's doomed to remain that way forever. Schuyler grows more "normal", for lack of a better word, every day, and one day she just might reach the point where she can walk, and more importantly TALK, in the neurotypical world like just about any other young woman you might meet. In some ways, she already does.

But after spending time with these kids and watching how hard they work with AAC technology to reach the world around them and communicate the things going on inside their beautiful and remarkable brains, I am reminded once again of a simple truth, one that I sometimes forget, to my shame.

Without the support of so many people and without the hard work of everyone who loves her and refuses to give up or accept things that no parent should ever accept, and most of all without her Big Box of Words and her little mental toolbox of sign language and her broken but earnest verbal expression, Schuyler Noelle would still be that ethereal, otherworldly little girl, the one I described in my book. So strange and beautiful, but not entirely ours or entirely in our world.

Stop looking at my hair like that. Just stop.

My friend and fellow fancy pants author Karen Harrington and I presented a panel for the Writers' Guild of Texas earlier this week, called "A Year in the Life of Two Debut Authors", and Karen has done a good write-up on her blog of some of the topics we touched on, in an entry called "8 Tips for The Debut Author".

Clearly, Tip #9 should be "Have someone look at your hair before you go out in public". Well, what are you going to do? Karen is always so pretty and put together and organized, and I am just a big mess all the time. She's nowhere near as compelling of a cautionary tale as I am, though. So, you know, I've got that going for me.

I am working on a few entries about my trip to San Francisco. They should be posted at some point between today and the cooling of the sun and the subsequent end of civilization as we know it.

February 17, 2009

Letter to PRC

things that are green
Originally uploaded by mo pie
I'm writing more about my visit to the Bay Area (much more, in fact), but I wanted to share a letter I just sent to the president and to the marketing director of the Prentke Romich Company, known to monster fighters all as the makers of Schuyler's Big Box of Words.

Sometimes I feel like so much focus falls on people when they don't measure up to expectations, and yet there are so many people out there getting it right. I don't ever want to forget to say thanks when they do.

Hello again!

I just wanted to take a moment and let you know that I had a very successful visit to the San Francisco area this past week, visiting the
Bridge School and the TACLE Program at Redwood Heights Elementary School in Oakland. It was amazing to see how these programs work, and to meet the dedicated people who are fighting the good fight. It's one thing to talk about how augmentative communication technology SHOULD be implemented in a school environment, but quite another to see how people are making it a reality. It has given me a lot to think about, and to write about as well.

I would be remiss if I didn't let you know just how extraordinary
Kara Bidstrup was in making my trip such a memorable experience. From the very beginning, she was enthusiastic and very efficient in setting up these visits and getting me where I needed to be without any trouble at all. She was very warm and friendly, and was a real pleasure to be around. It was clear that the people we met at both schools held Kara in high regard, and I can't imagine that she could have represented PRC with any higher degree of professionalism and enthusiasm.

Beyond her role in facilitating my school visits, Kara was a real joy to talk to one-on-one. I was especially thrilled when she came to my book signing the next night at Book Passage in Corte Madera. Schuyler and Julie were unable to come on this trip with me, but they appeared at the event via teleconferencing. When Schuyler used her Vantage on the screen and audience members began asking questions, Kara stepped up and was able to show a Vantage Lite and demonstrate how it functioned. I received a number of very appreciative comments from people who had been curious about the device when they read about it in the book and loved being able to see one in person, as well as having a knowledgeable person on-hand to answer questions about it. It made me realize that I should have invited a PRC rep to be on-hand at my solo events all along.

The longer I work with your company, both in my capacity as a writer and advocate and more importantly as Schuyler's father, the more impressed I am with the level of competence and enthusiasm of everyone who works for you. It speaks volumes about PRC that I was thrilled at how amazing Kara was, but not one bit surprised. Thank you once again for everything you've done, both for me and my family and for all the other people out there who seek so desperately for a voice and find one, thanks to you.

My continued best wishes,

Rob R-H

February 13, 2009

I am your San Francisco treat, baby

If you're in the Bay Area, this is your reminder to come see me tonight at 7:00, at Book Passage in Corte Madera. I think it's going to be a lot of fun. There may be some special surprises of the snack variety and just maybe, if I can figure out how to make it work, a special guest appearance of sorts. Oo, a teaser.

I'm having an amazing time in San Francisco. I spoke to an advanced composition class at the College of San Mateo, and afterwards we workshopped some of their own personal narrative pieces, all of which were really very good. I hereby repudiate all my cracks about "kids these days". I also visited the Bridge School and a program very similar to Schuyler's in Oakland, and it was an experience that I am still processing and will write about at length soon. Today I'm going to explore the city with Monique, and I'd be a terrible father to Schuyler if my day didn't include a visit to the Pirate Supply Store.

Oh, and I accidentally cut off the tip of my finger. I suppose I'll write about that soon, too.

February 8, 2009

Muted anxiety

Recently, I've been reading a great deal of literature and material on the subject of special needs parenting (including an absolutely amazing manuscript I may be blurbing that I can't WAIT to tell you about in the coming months as it gets closer to publication), and the thing that strikes me once again is the incredible diversity of the experiences we have.

In the past, I've addressed how those of us writing about our experiences as "Shepherds of the Broken" do so with a variety of perspectives and approaches to what our kids face. Some of us are pragmatists, some infuse our writing with spirituality or religion, some of us use humor, some report from a place of despair, and others write with cheerful optimism. One of the reasons I have largely rejected the idea of People First Language is that it only really works as intended when it's applied as a universal standard, which assumes that there is a common attitude and approach to special needs parenting. In my experience, nothing could be further from the truth.

Lately I've been especially aware of how the experiences we face as special needs parents are so wildly divergent as to seriously challenge the notion that we really even have a comparable perspective at all. We do, of course; the challenges we face in receiving services, the grief over the loss of the imaginary child bourn from our expectations who is not to be, the fight that we take on because if not us, then who? -- these really do seem to be universal experiences. But our kids all have individual monsters, with wildly different effects on their hosts. The variety of disabilities can be daunting when take a step back and take it all in. God, the Universe, Fate, whatever you believe in -- someone or something seems to have a limitless (and limitlessly cruel) imagination when it comes to ways to break children.

Among children with disabilities, Schuyler is luckier than most, we are aware of this. When people meet Schuyler, they tend to take her at face value; her monster is hidden, for the most part, and doesn't obviously stamp itself on her outward appearance. Her facial structure is "normal" (whatever that means), her social behavior is largely consistent with that of a neurotypical kid her age, and she is completely ambulatory, albeit somewhat clumsy. Truthfully, however, Schuyler tends to skew a little younger when she finds random play friends; her delay and her lack of language still makes her a more ideal playmate for kids who are a few years younger than she is. There are concepts that she simply doesn't get, concepts that a nine year-old should understand. It's nice to pretend that she's on track with other kids her age just because she's attending age-appropriate mainstream classes part of the day, but the truth is more complicated than that, and it's going to become more and more of an issue as she gets older. Will she ever catch up to her peers? Nobody knows, but she's not there yet, not by a long shot.

Still, it's easy to put her monster out of mind. This might be a strange confession from someone whose very identity as a writer and public speaker is largely defined by special needs parenting, but I don't think of Schuyler as a child with a disability, not most of the time. It's not that I forget, exactly. Rather, the accommodations and adjustments that we make as her parents when we communicate or interact with her on a daily basis have become ingrained in our natural behaviors. It's simply how it is with Schuyler.

When your child says something to you, do you automatically repeat it back to her to make sure she said what you think you heard? Do you keep an expensive electronic device within arm's reach at all times for the times that sign language and Martian fail to communicate a concept? We do, and the odd thing is, we do so without thinking about it most of the time. We've accepted the weird as our new normal, and honestly, your normal strikes us a a little weird. Normal conversation with a child? What kind of futuristic, science fiction concept is that? Do you have a talking cat, too? That's just crazy talk, man.

There are times when it all breaks down, though. Schuyler is a willful child, and while her school is, in most respects, the very best place in the world for her, she's still a square peg sometimes. This has very little to do with her monster and almost everything to do with her father, I know. Schuyler has a natural distrust for authority and a taste for random acts of meaningless defiance, personality traits that are nothing like Julie and everything like me. Notes come home from school reporting various acts of mild insurrection about once a week or so. "Schuyler refused to use a pencil today" was the most recent, and when asked why, she simply stated that she wanted to use a pen, as if the issue was obvious. She clearly understands the idea of her teachers as authority figures. I just don't believe she accepts it, not entirely.

I recognize this as a strength as well as a liability; it's a trait that is going to serve her well when she's older. But it presents a challenge and requires a delicate balance. The issue becomes more complicated when she disobeys Julie and me, of course. Schuyler defies us, because she's nine and because she's Schuyler, and we push back, because we'd like to avoid raising a feral anarchist if we can.

But when she gets in trouble, Schuyler shuts down. She freezes up when we insist that she use her device to explain herself; it's suddenly as if she has never used it before in her life. I mean it, too; she actually used it more proficiently back when she really had never used it before in her life. The problem goes beyond stubbornness, too. She seems to legitimately be unable to calm herself to the point that she can construct a dialogue. Instead, she tries to defend herself verbally, but the more upset she gets, she more unintelligible she becomes. Her words, already identifiable mostly through context and inflection alone, run together into an fretful, angry stream of sound. Her meaning disappears, replaced by an incomprehensible anxiety.

These are the worst moments for us, and while they don't compare to the worst moments some families face, they nevertheless involve a near-complete shutdown of communication. In those moments, our frustration and being unable to simply parent our child is exceeded only by Schuyler's frustration at suddenly finding herself under a baffling glass dome, shouting into a void. In those moments, we all feel broken.

I don't know what the answer is. It saps our strength, all of us, because it shines a hard light on one of the lingering deficiencies of Schuyler's use of the Big Box of Words. It illustrates just how far we all have to go, and how hard we have to work, in order to make this unnatural form of communication feel like second nature to her.

Most of the time, Schuyler doesn't seem broken, not to those of us who love her and live every minute in her world. Even now, though, after all these years and as far as we've come with her, it is painful and shocking when the monster bites.

February 4, 2009

Minnesota Parent review

"Fully formed: a father's journey with his nonverbal daughter"
by Beth Hawkins

Minnesota Parent: "Shelf Life", February 2009

"Somewhere in the process of advocating for his daughter's undaunted spirit, Robert comes to believe in himself as a father. Schuyler's Monster paints a haunting picture of the soul's need to be known, as well as the painful way in which becoming a parent forces one to recognize one's weaknesses and limitations."