I want ___ please

processed harp & fixed media, 2016

You have to pull them out of their bodiless dream. You have to make them talk to you; they have to practice speech, but they're nonverbal, so you have to make a mouth for them out of paper, or a laptop, or their hands. Any tongue you can find, any teeth you can afford, you try, you try, you try, because when they age out of high school, you can't help them anymore. If you can't instill the habit by age 22, there's a possibility that no one will ever ask or push them to use language again. This piece is dedicated to the staff and students at Heather Empfield Day School and Transition Center, a school for children with severe and profound autism.

Listen

Context

My first job after undergrad was substitute teaching. It's solid work, your time is addictively flexible, and I can't think of a base-salary job that has more baked-in variety. Generally, you can choose what challenges you want to take on depending on the day, and I spent a lot of time subbing where my professor's wife worked: Heather Empfield Day School, a school for students with autism behaviors severe enough that they have to be taken out of standard public schools.

Empfield was my favorite place to sub for a lot of reasons. Everyone on staff was great to work with, they all legitimately cared about the students in their charge, and the kids themselves didn't expect you to act a certain way. I didn't need to be An Adult; I could be myself. It was a workplace that had some dangers, which I was aware of going in, but the pros outweighed the cons.

What fascinated me, even from the first day, was watching how they used (or failed to use) language. All but a few of the students were nonverbal, so many of them had been taught to use PECS (Picture Exchange Communication System) binders. A PECS binder is composed of a number of small, velcro-backed tokens with pictures on them of things the student might want or ask for (food, bathroom, toys), plus a few sentence components like "I want," "I need," "Something hurts," and "please." These tokens are assembled into short sentences on a removable sentence strip, which gets handed to an adult as a request. Though many of these students will usually be with an adult that can help them order food or find a bathroom when out in public, having a means of communicating nonverbally helps a lot of children with autism feel far less frustrated expressing their needs at home. Some of the students were great at using them, and knew what they were asking for; others couldn't care less, and hadn't been taught to use them well enough at home, because acting out usually got them what they wanted anyway.

Watching them made me think a lot about wants, and needs, and dreams. I base a lot of my decisions on who I want to be in the future, but what about this teenager here, who could care less about tomorrow? She experiences nothing but her base needs, and everything for her is about sheer stimulus, so what does she dream about? Does she even dream? And there were times where I felt behind - as someone who sometimes forgets to eat, or sleep, or express my needs, how can I say I'm more functional than they are? What's neurotypical about ignoring yourself?

A lot of that is in this piece - the velcro noises of the PECS binders, the noises they make for stimming (reproduced as well as I could manage), humming, the weird way anyone on the receiving end of a sentence strip says the words aloud, their anger, my dreams, my wants, the dreams of others, the wants of others. The harp part is primarily effects-based, because that's how I imagine they'd interact with my instrument; it makes a lot of fun noises, and I can imagine them trying to make those noises over and over again. So that's what I tried for - the sounds we make, the sounds they make, the words we'd both say if we could.

Written by Becky on Tuesday January 10, 2017

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