This I Believe

W. Luther - Washington Grove, Maryland
Entered on February 20, 2007
Age Group: 50 - 65
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I believe in the power of language to open doors.

I work with school children and youth who have severe cognitive disabilities — autism, cerebral palsy, Down Syndrome, and a host of other handicapping conditions. Many of my students have little, or no, verbal language skills. But this doesn’t mean they have nothing to say. Children without formal language may use gestures, sounds, and facial expressions to express themselves. Sometimes, their behaviors can be disruptive or disturbing — tantrums, aggression, self-injury. But behind those extreme behaviors lies an impulse which unites all of us in the human family — the powerful urge to communicate.

Years ago, when I started working in this field, I worked in a special school with adolescents who were all institutionalized. Every afternoon, at dismissal, one of my students –I’ll call him “Mike”– would throw himself, screaming and kicking, onto the floor in the middle of the school lobby. Most people simply saw Mike as stubborn and non-compliant, but to me it was fairly obvious that he didn’t want to leave the school and go back to the institution. How was this any different from more accepted forms of social protest? If he could have spoken — wouldn’t Mike have been denouncing the conditions at that institution?

In years since, I’ve often thought of the lesson Mike taught me about behavior and communication. Now, I am a behavioral specialist. My job is to act as a translator. By analyzing the contexts in which challenging behaviors occur, we can start to understand what the student is trying to tell us. And when we understand that, we can try to teach the student a better way to say it. By discovering what motivates these individuals, we can –perhaps– give them the gift of language. And this gift can open doors of opportunity that might otherwise have remained closed.

In my other life, outside work, I am a poet. This occupation, too, is a form of translation — I use words and images to convey things the reader cannot see, thoughts and ideas. If I am successful, a door opens in the reader’s mind to let me in.

The behaviors of my students are also a kind of rough poetry. Unable to communicate directly, they must lead us toward understanding. And where some might see simply a non-compliant child, I see an epic of the human spirit, aching to be heard and understood. A door opens in my mind — and I can see the human being behind the label, the meaning behind the behavior.

So, I believe in the power of language to open all sorts of doors. It is an everyday miracle — one we too often take for granted. Yet, it is nothing short of miraculous that when I say the word “blue”, or the word “tree”, you –the listener– and I –the speaker– can have a shared understanding of what “blue” is, what a “tree” is. And if this can happen — there’s no end to the doors we can open together.