An elephant just can’t forget (#134)

Guitarboy_3 Stella, Tara, Arielah, Kristy, Beth: I have written of these therapists from Charlie’s original home program in St. Paul that lasted from September 1999-May 2000 frequently because Charlie talks about them, and much more than anyone who is currently working with him. Jim and I have always attributed his unwavering memory of those Minnesota days (and the Teletubbie shows he and Jim watched together, and their walks and drives around St. Paul–Jim had a sabbatical and was at home with Charlie) to the intensive structure and supervision of the program and to the unflagging, loving enthusiam of our therapy team who had made it their mission to make learning the best fun ever for Charlie. Charlie especially loved our weekly team meetings, when everyone gathered around him and his blue plastic Little Tykes table in our living room; how they cheered when he followed two-step directions and colored complicated pictures of fish and merry-go-rounds and cars. He was in his element.

We would have continued Charlie with those therapists but we moved back to St. Louis in late May of 2000. Jim returned to teaching at Saint Louis University and Charlie began a verbal behavior program under the supervision of a consultant from the Special School District of St. Louis County. In the spring he started attending a preschool program with one of our home therapists as his aide. In May of 2001 we moved back to Jim’s native New Jersey and Charlie was placed in a special education preschool classroom until October of 2001, when he was placed in an autism classroom, where he stayed until fall of 2002, when he was moved to an autism classroom with older students. In Feburary of 2003 we moved to the town we lived in–close enough to New York City that the sky to the east is never fully dark, due to the glow of the lights–and Charlie became a student in another autism classroom, in which he was the youngest student by some years. In September of 2003 he was placed in another autism classroom with six other children.

Charlie’s education back in those Minnesota days was at a very high level of structure, supervision by behavior consultants, constant re-examination of reinforcement, and more. Jim has sometimes joked (and sighed) that, since Charlie began with so much, that’s what he expects–and, truly, what he should have–for his education. Charlie’s education is currently in a state of transition and we are certainly keeping in mind not only his early success in his home program, but also his undying memory of that program and the people in it, and his continued asking for them.

MOM-NOS’s post about memory thoughtfully describes an ASD child’s inability rather to forget, to clear up space in the "hard drive" of his mind (if I may briefly draw on the computer metaphor of the autistic brain). Certainly Charlie has never (and I think, can never) forget those first therapists. All speech therapists are "like Tara"; all ABA therapists must measure up to "Stella Kristy Beth Arielah" (and all at once!); our original therapy team members have acquired the status of Archetypes in Charlie’s mind. Charlie too walks into stores and relatives’ houses and knows exactly and immediately where certain items (tape cassettes, CD’s, a train set) were when we were last there, even if it was a few years ago. Some variant of an analogical imagination is at work in Charlie’s mind such that he is always excited and perhaps comforted to be in the familiar sameness of chain stores (Target, ShopRite) and fast food restaurants (the inevitable McDonald’s). These are places that all have the same parts–the booths, or check-out counter, or glass doors, or colors, or smells, or aisles of 99 cent items, or men’s clothes, or babystuff, or kitchenware, or DVD’s–arranged in just enough of a different order that he has to look around to find his preferred items, and familiar enough that he feels confident that he will find them.

Charlie can be said to have a strong memory; Charlie cannot forget. Once he decides he misses his grandparents, or regrets that he no longer has Barney, he can talk about "Gong Gong Po Po Californy" 100 million times, or "Barney Baby Bop BJ" over and over and over. For many of us, talking about what bothers us can be a way of working through a loss or painful experience. For Charlie, it’s a gargantuan cognitive task to get past what’s bothering him and feeling anything besides the original loss. Sometimes I think Charlie has too much memory–memory in over-processing mode, continually–and, somehow, this gets in the way of him being able to forget, to move on. Stubbornness has always been one of Charlie’s traits and we sometimes fancy about this and his being born under the Chinese astrological sign of the ox, plus–his birthday being May 15th–his being a Taurus, a bull. With a double-dose of stubbornness, it must be very hard for Charlie to let go of things–to forget–indeed.

Happyevening The Greeks had some inkling of the power of Memory in making Mnemosyne ("Memory") the mother of the nine Muses, the goddesses of poetry and song and literature, of aesthetic creations that soothe the mind by memorializing what we like a lot and remember. And perhaps that is why the souls of the dead drink of the river Lethe–of "forgetting"–on their way down to Hades, to the Underworld of Greek mythology. They must forget before they can cross over to the next thing. But poetry and song and literature are the creations of the living, of Homer intoning "Sing, Muse, of the wrath of Achilles Peleus’ son"; of Catullus mourning his dead brother in multas per gentes et multa per aequora vectus, "through many peoples and over many seas have I been borne" (c. 101). Poetry memorializes what is missing, gone, and lost. Charlie, I think, gets stuck in the making of the poem, in describing what he has lost, in part because talking about things makes them (almost?) real and present for him. And to have to forget the things that gave him so much joy and meant so much to him is a chaos he fears to plummet into.

As Charlie’s parents, we have to help him create new memories , however much he would like to stay in the tried and true world of past successes. But it is also the case that what Charlie remembers the best are things that once brought him joy and happiness, like his original home program and all the good learning that he did. And we are more than willing to bring back such an educational program for him if it can form the basis for making those new memories, for helping him learn new ways to communicate and to cope; for helping him to keep learning new skills, like reading, and new ways of expressing himself, and to move on.

"Elephant!" said Charlie this evening, I’m not sure why. He had just finished a cheery session with his home therapist that had begun with him lying on the couch and whining. The therapist got him up, got him to work through his program and build with blocks and learn. He said, spontaneously, "I want eat brown noodles!". I bundled him up in his fleece jacket and hat and we walked to the center of our town to retrieve the green car from where Jim had left it by the train station. He and Charlie had gone on a short bike ride then took the car to "ssstrain" and met me at my job; Jim then rode the PATH train to go to work. On our evening walk to get the green car, Charlie stumbled on someone’s lawn and caught himself on his hands, shook himself, and stood up. He found the car before I did and, after it was safely parked in front of our house, he played his guitar, rolled around on a chair, lay down with his dog sleeping bag, soon slept.

I don’t know about whether oxen are said to remember or forget but the archetypal elephant is said not to. Certainly I never forget a song from a certain movie about elephants, when a too-big-eared young elephant is rocked to sleep in the crook of his mother’s trunk, and a chorus of sweet voices croon and cheer in the background.

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