I had everything so beautifully planned in my new home schooling room; there was a cosy area for reading in one corner, a desk for writing or more formal lessons and a play area. There was only one problem.
I was alone. The pile of printed worksheets seemed to be mocking me and my ridiculous attempts at teaching were failing miserably. Thula came into the room and snuggled up next to me. I needed her more than ever before. ‘Thula, how do you do it? Iris keeps on walking off.’ I felt hopeless. The past week had gone by without any successes and frustration was mounting on all sides. I was losing my way and needed help. Up until that point schooling Iris at home hadn’t been easy but we were making steady progress. I had covered everything she needed to know under the preschool syllabus but now we were venturing into reception-aged activities and I was struggling. I thought some more and realized where I was going wrong. The room looked like a classroom and the activities and worksheets I was introducing meant nothing to Iris. She wasn’t interested. That was the key to all of this. I needed to capture that incredible concentration span of hers in activities that would mean something to her. I had started to follow a generic formula set out by others. Thula followed me out into the open air on the decking and we looked down to the tree stump where Iris was sitting. I began to feel better as I took deep slow breaths. Out there in nature was where we needed to be. Iris’s education started to fill our lives in a more positive way. It didn’t fit into set hours or days of the week; it took on a rather more spontaneous and organic feel. Every time we saw an opportunity P-J and I would take it. It didn’t matter if it was late in the evening or early in the morning, in the bath or on the bikes; if she wanted to learn and explore or she was interested in a topic we went with it. It didn’t even matter if I had already made a plan for another theme; I would put that to one side and go with what was most motivating Iris at that point. The freedom was powerful, although it did take some getting used to. Once I had prepared a topic and put all that effort in it was tempting to just plough on even if Iris wasn’t so into it. Sometimes I tried regardless, but after some unsuccessful sessions I had to remind myself to stay true to my ethos of following Iris. Without a strong motivator she was very difficult to teach; in fact, at times it was almost impossible as she wanted me away from her. So I would take a deep breath, think hard about what I could use to reconnect with her, what lines I could say from a favourite book or song, or maybe which toy I could bring into the room that was on the theme that had inspired her. Thula jumped up on my lap and settled into a ball, purring. ‘Just who I need, Thulie-Bulie. We are going to teach Iris using you, Thula. Isn’t that wonderful?’ She lifted up her head and gave me a look as if to say ‘Well, of course. What else, who else would you need?’ I wrote the word ‘cat’ in the middle of a piece of paper and put a circle round it, and then orbiting that I made more circles with the different subjects: English, music, art, ICT, science, maths, PE, geography and history. I started to brainstorm and plot out what we would do and the methods I could use with cat as the theme to teach certain skills. The English section was packed full of books, poems and rhymes. There was a book out on the sofa, a heavy second hand one that I had bought for Iris years before. I had read many poems and nursery rhymes from it that Iris had liked and I noticed she had the page open on ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’. A plump brown owl sat with a tabby cat in a pea green boat in the blue sea with a pot of honey, some money and a guitar under a starlit sky. This is what I would recreate; we would make a boat from a cardboard box with props and, of course, Thula playing the part of the cat. We would then work on the vocab for the poem, practise writing some of the letters and saying the words. The arts section had all sorts of projects like making cat masks to encourage Iris to interact and to play. For ICT she would use my computer to practise typing simple words and try out my camera to take photos of Thula. To add some science we would weigh Thula, compare sizes of cats, look at what whiskers were for and the other parts of the body. To practise maths skills we would count whiskers on the mask and maybe on Thula if she was sleeping, put the wild cat toys in size order, count them up and start to introduce addition. Geography was easy enough with the wild cats, and a zoo visit was essential for her to see them. And finally for some history I had a beautiful book, The Cat: 3,500 Years of the Cat in Art, which we could use, maybe looking into the Egyptians too. It was going to be an amazing feline journey. But to start we needed to make our boat.
The paint had dried and as I took the cardboard boat out on to the decking Iris was dragging a bundle of blue fabrics that I had collected earlier. I created a sea of cotton around the boat and added some sea creatures, a crab, some fish and a lobster. Then I hid a small bag of treasure inside, along with a jar of honey, Iris’s pink ukulele and some binoculars to admire the view. I went to fetch some other items: an owl mask we had created earlier and a ring for the pig puppet. I put those in place and added a few silver stars to the hedge on one side – magic surprises that Iris could find and count. As I talked to her about the sea and the fantastic journey that we were about to go on, she looked at me as if to say ‘Are you mad?’ Then she ran off, returning with my iPhone and Thula trotting beside her. No adventure was complete without Thula and Peggy Lee. She navigated though the various settings to select her song and then we were off. Thula and I got in with her; it was a squish but Iris was grateful for our company as the vessel was still undergoing some inspection and not yet a safe place to be. As she explored she found the bag of treasure, the golden coins that glinted in the sun. She felt the texture round their edges, rotating them in her hands, then when she gave me a nudge I took my cue and climbed overboard. My plan was working; all those hours of finding the perfect box, painting it and finding the props had paid off. It felt very good indeed and I felt so pleased with myself. But then Iris got out too and disappeared into the house. I had hoped all my efforts in would have entertained her for a little longer. I felt disappointed. Had I gone too far? Was this all too much? Did I need to simplify things? After all, most of the advice I had received in the last year from experts and therapists who specialize in autism talked about teaching those on the spectrum with simple concepts and clear instructions broken down into stages. My methods were doing the opposite on many levels. But then through the glass I could see her coming back, this time with the iPad. Back on board Iris selected Google Earth, rotating the world, zooming in to South America, scooting over the Pacific Ocean and gently cruising her way around the planet, stopping every so often to take a look at the horizon through her binoculars. This wasn’t just playful antics. Iris was plotting her journey across the Pacific Ocean. It was way beyond what I expected. Her ability to understand and analyse a situation, her enquiring mind and intense focus, could still surprise me at times. Her autism meant that imaginative, pretend play was consumed by a curiosity about how things work and a fascination for nature and its beauty. It was a powerful gift and one I intended to use to help her understand new concepts. Iris was using her imagination but in a rather different way to what you would normally expect from a child of her age. To me it was brilliant. Iris dangled a necklace in the sun as Thula batted it with her paw, making it swing from side to side. Iris happily hummed, watching the dancing splashes of light that the necklace created against the inside of the boat; it was like shimmering water reflections, adding to the magic. I read out the poem and Iris repeated parts and giggled at the part about dancing in the light of the moon. I used the puppet and the mask to encourage her to interact and that afternoon I wrote out the key words from the poem and Iris read them from the cards with ease.
Edited extract from ‘Iris Grace’ which has been published in Hardcover by Penguin. http://hyperurl.co/IrisGrace