Roman Letterboards! (Part 2): Shock & Awe

After gingerly creeping up our snow and ice-encrusted walkway (affectionately dubbed "the luge"), we finally dropped our bags and collapsed in our own home on Sunday night. We are just back from Roman's four-day letterboarding camp in Austin and the kids missed a week of school- call me a bad mama, but I'd do it again in a heartbeat. And even though Texas defied all my optimistically balmy wintertime expectations, at least I have a better understanding of the Romanator to keep me warm.

Okay, you know that scene when Harry Potter steals a little looksie into the basin in Dumbledore's office (yes, I am a total geek), and we watch as liquid inkblots transform into solid memories? Well it felt just like that. Or like the first time you develop your own film in a darkroom- not knowing how to unspool or expose it, before finally dipping it into a bath that slowly and magically reveals an image. Like that! Except in this case, Roman's thoughts were made concrete to us. And that stinker is far more capable than we imagined, even AFTER our minds were blown by what he did with Soma this summer.

That first visit took us completely by surprise- we were in and out before we knew what hit us, with only our collective memories of the experience. After a while, we started to wonder if everything really happened as we remembered. This time, we resolved to pay special attention to Soma's methods, and we were given the green light to film everything. He had two sessions each day, lasting about an hour in total. It was legit, and this is what we learned.
< For gravitas, insert Law & Order's chung-chung! sound effect here. >

First of all, it's important to note that Roman's short-term memory is much stronger than we imagined. In order to communicate via letter board, he has to remember the question, his answer, and where he was in the spelling of his answer. Roman only uses a pencil to point at a letter intermittently, and then Soma takes it away to record his answer before giving it back: this process is rather long. Soma explained that hyperverbal kids like Roman need to be slowed down to curb their impulsivity and communicate better.

At times Roman looked supremely bored. He was staring out of the window, on the lookout for passing garbage trucks. After a couple of days practice, he pointed to letters without even turning his head towards the stencil- using motor memory to write in the same way that most of us type without looking at the keyboard. But when Soma would tell a story and follow up with a question, Roman answered correctly every time. He is absorbing everything.

At other moments, he snatched the pencil from Soma's hand, excited to communicate his thoughts. And he was proud too- after his first session, Roman caught up with us on the walkway outside and arm-hugged Jeff and me, saying "I like all you guys!"

Starting out with a few word associations, he came up with B-L-A-N-K-E-T for warm, S-U-M-M-E-R for beach, C-O-M-F-O-R-T for calm, W-A-V-E-S for sea, and E-M-O-T-I-O-N for angry. (Emotion!?! Difficult spelling and thoughtful response for a kiddo who still points at cartoony stick figure faces to identify the major feelings of happy, sad, and angry.) Likewise, when prompted to supply a word for the letters of the alphabet, I was expecting the ABCs to sound like ape, bee, and car... but he dope-slapped me with A-H-E-A-D,   B-E-T-W-E-E-N,   C-H-A-S-E,   D-I-S-T-A-N-T,   E-S-C-A-P-E,   F-A-R,   G-I-R-L,   H-E-L-P,   I-D-E-A,   J-O-B... Almost like he was pulling words out of a running play in his head. (Perhaps the plot to Gone Girl? Kidding! He'll watch anything with popcorn, but I'm too chicken to see that one.)

He can spell EXPERIMENT, SCOTLAND, EXPLORE, and BASKET. When Soma asked for a travel suggestion, he offered up S-A-N  F-R-A-N-C-I-S-C-O. (Which I usually only spell correctly half the time.) When asked to supply some rhyming words, he made some unusual pairings: S-P-O-O-N and B-A-L-L-O-O-N for moon, P-L-E-A-S-E and K-E-Y-S for sees, and T-E-A-M and S-C-R-E-A-M for gleam.

Uncharted islands of his personality were revealed. He is private. When Soma asked if there was something he would rather forget, he tapped out:
I   D-O-N-T   W-A-N-T   T-O   T-E-L-L. In a listening mood on a different day, he wrote: I   L-I-K-E   O-T-H-E-R-S   T-A-L-K.

Roman is inquisitive; as to what type of environment he'd like to explore - she suggested mountains, desert, or prairies - he stunned us with a fourth option, spelling out out C-O-R-A-L-S. Whattttttt? Then the little charmer grabbed the pencil again to follow up with: H-O-W   A-B-O-U-T   Y-O-U?

When asked if he had any questions that he had always wondered about, he replied: W-H-Y   F-E-E-L-I-N-G-S   A-R-E   S-O   C-L-O-U-D-Y   W-H-E-N   S-A-D. (And yes, that did make me feel rather - um - cloudy.) Afterwards I chatted with Soma about how poetic his description of sad feelings was- she said that many of the autistic kids she works with (including her own son) have synesthesia- where senses are jumbled and and a color might feel like an emotion. So for Roman, sadness might feel less like a metaphor, and more like clouds. This idea blows my mind.

Roman has a moral compass. When asked what his message was for the world today, he wrote: B-E   N-I-C-E. Sound advice.
But he's also got some math and reasoning skills. A sampling:
7+ 2 = 9
8 + 5 = 13
19 + 8 = 27
98 + 78 = 176
79 + 65 = 144
9 - 8 = 1
63 - 28 = 35
I thought this would be some pretty tall cotton for Roman. But for those of you following along at home, he got everything correct. By now, my brain was flashing ERROR.

We learned that he would like GREEN sheets for his bed. When Soma asked if he preferred light or dark green, he tapped out O-L-I-V-E. (Olive! I had no idea he knew that color existed, that it was classified under green, or that he knew how to spell it correctly. Nuanced indeed!) He would like to explore MARS, and confirming our understanding of him as an auditory learner, he is impressed by VOICES, MUSIC, and a good SCARY STORY. If he won the Lotto and had all the money he needed, what would he do? TRAVEL. Where, you wonder? Why to FRANCE, MEXICO, and CANADA. His favorite school subject? HISTORY.

Curious, Roman followed up by asking Soma: D-O   Y-O-U   H-A-V-E   A   S-C-H-O-O-L? She explained that she did not like teaching in public school, but that she wanted to live in a community where she could teach adults with autism as well, so they would continue to learn and grow. Taking his own advice, Roman replied: N-I-C-E.

Prompted with "long ago..." he wrote: I   T-H-I-N-K   D-I-N-O-S-A-U-R-S   L-I-V-E-D. (O' course!) When asked to say something about water, he tapped out: W-A-T-E-R   I-N   C-L-O-U-D-S   H-A-N-G   F-R-O-M   S-K-Y. (Maybe he's a poet after all...) And requested to write something about being a king, he supplied: I-T   I-S   A   P-O-S-I-T-I-O-N. (Mm-hmm.) What sort of invention he would want to make? A   B-I-G   S-U-N   I-N   R-O-O-M. When she asked why: L-I-G-H-T   I-N   C-L-O-U-D-Y   D-A-Y-S. (Okay- I realize this may be one cloud reference too many. In his defense, it was rather overcast in Austin.)

At one point, Soma paused to explain to Jeff and I how she was working with Roman - easy in the beginning - state then ask. Then she started packing in more information and spacing out the questions- this was to build his short term memory and improve word retrieval. Romi reached for the pencil and added to our conversation: I   C-A-N-T   B-E   T-O-O   C-O-M-P-L-E-X. (Ha! I'm not falling for that one again.)

They wrote a story together, and Roman filled in the blanks. Once upon a time, there was a [FROG]. The frog lived in a [POOL] with [HIS FRIENDS]. One day a [CROCODILE ATE HIM]. This was [SAD]. (That got dark quick. Chung-chung!)

But he can also articulate complicated feelings- this has been a spotty and emerging skill. Soma made up a story about a fox who fell into a pool of blue dye, then was embarrassed to be different among his friends. She asked to write whatever he wanted about the feeling of being embarrassed. He wrote: L-I-K-E   W-H-E-N   I   T-R-Y   T-O   T-A-L-K   A-N-D   R-I-G-H-T   W-O-R-D-S   D-O   N-O-T   H-A-P-P-E-N.  An elegant connection that split my heart like an atom.

And through all of this, Roman did not try to answer verbally- he understood that he was supposed to communicate on the letter board only. Rules? Intuited! And just like that, we discovered more about our son's intellect in four hours than we had in the the twelve previous years. BOOM!

What does this mean for the future though? I'm not sure. I asked Soma if writing these complicated words meant that Roman could read - one of my most fervent hopes for him. She said that he probably CAN read but with some major fluency issues- maybe he's too distractable, or his eyesight wanders... For now, I'm going to sneak in twenty minutes of letterboarding per day and see if we can keep those clouds away. I'll keep you posted.



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