Tonight I was reading Maternal Insticts: Flying by the Seat of My Pants which is one of my favorite blogs by a parent of a child with disabilities and Niksmom's recounting of Nik learning how to sign "yes" and thus answer questions about pain brought back one of my favorite teacher memories.
About 10 years ago I taught a very small intensive special needs class in an urban elementary school. One of my students, a 10 year old boy, came to me with a history of sleeping all day, every day, at school and an estimated "developmental age" of six months. This little boy came from a Spanish speaking home and lived in the housing projects in the city. He had a severe seizure disorder, cerebral palsy, used a wheelchair and was non-verbal. As we settled into a routine in our classroom that September and October I noticed that he often laughed or responded in an obvious way to humor, especially joke questions like, "Is you mother's name Tallulah?" (It wasn't.)
One day we were in that nebulous part of the afternoon when everyone has their coats on and their bags packed, but the buses have not arrived yet. Jokingly I asked my student if he could open his mouth to catch a fly in the room. He did. I stifled my gasp and asked him if he could look up. He did. I repeated my question and he again looked up, laughing now. I went into the hallway and grabbed the first person I could find, the OT, and asked her to watch us. I again requested my student look up. He did and then he laughed. I asked him if there was anything else he could do. He stuck his tongue out just past his lips and grinned at me.
The next day I asked my student if we could pretend looking up meant "yes". He looked up. I proceeded to ask him a variety of questions and he accurately responded to all of them using his new method of raising his eyes to say "yes". Actually he missed one question, "Is your mother's name Tallulah?" (Which he thought was the best joke ever.)
Over the next few weeks we worked to refine this method of answering "yes" and I was hesitant to call his mother (who was not named Tallulah) in for a meeting, in case he wasn't ready to carry his new communication over to his home life. One morning the phone rang and his mother (through a translator) asked why her son was rolling his eyes at her all the time. We knew we had accomplished generalization and filled the mom in on what all the eye raising meant. She was excited, but dubious.
A few weeks after that we received another early morning phone call from my student's mother. She was crying and before long the translator was crying as well. The mom was explaining, "Last night my baby was crying. He was sick and I didn't know what was wrong. I started asking him questions. Do your toes hurt? Do your legs hurt? Does your bottom hurt? Does your stomach hurt? When I asked about his stomach he raised his eyes and stopped crying so hard. I gave him some stomach medicine in his tube and he was better. He stopped crying. This is the first time I could help my son because he could tell me what was wrong. Thank you so much. Thank you for making it so my son can tell me what he needs from me."
Once we heard what the conversation was about we were all crying. A few months later my student added a slight head shake for "no". Then he learned how to use partner assisted scanning in a more formal way and then to use simple scanning software with a switch to make choices and spell out messages. All of this from an afternoon of joking around. His picture still hangs on my wall (taken with his hero Rick Hoyt) to remind me of the power of "yes".