Friday, January 22, 2010

Different but alike

Today was the day for which Archer has been preparing since school began. His Pinnacle group -- a cadre of gifted and talented third graders -- started off by doing a study on themselves, including their favorites, facts about their birth, interviews with their parents, and comparisons and contrasts to members of their families. Then they took elements of those assignments and integrating them into a Powerpoint presentation. Today Archer presented to his class and one other.

I am always so proud and excited to see Archer do something that demonstrates a reach beyond his inherent talents into areas where he is challenged. The organizational rigor and sequencing of a Powerpoint play to his strengths. In fact, when he attended Pinnacle presentations last year, he came home immediately and constructed one.

But the need to speak extemporaneously and remember his audience makes it difficult for him. That was borne out in his presentation today. While practicing with the small Pinnacle group, he was more fluid with his speaking, but today he stammered, paused, and became distracted by the forty people and accompanying activity in the room. It's not stage fright -- not something Archer would ever fall victim to, since he doesn't naturally share others' points of view or think of himself as under observation. It's just that he has to construct his sentences fully ahead of saying them, so even at home we wait through a dozen false starts before he gets to a period.

So his presentation was probably a lot longer than it was in practice. He had fifteen minutes allotted, and spent probably sixteen minutes on the presentation itself. Kindly, the teacher allowed him to have a Q&A session afterwards as planned even though he had run over; my video is 21 minutes long. The length made me anxious for him, as I wondered if the teacher would cut him off or rush him along, and if his audience were getting restless.

In other words, he remained different from his classmates (one of whose presentations I saw before his) in predictable ways, given his autism.

But of course, I look at those differences through the eyes of someone who knows how far outside Archer's normal tendencies this task requires him to go. And there he is, throwing in little asides as he goes through his slides, responding to the laughter of his classmates at his explanation of a picture of him in his calculator Halloween costume, and answering (if haltingly) questions about his favorites, vacations, and personal history. His enthusiasm for the task is infectious; he really wants to explain each slide and item, and just when I would fear he was losing focus, he would bring it back by completing the thought. There was plenty of delighted reaction when he listed his favorite numbers (anything where the digits add up to seven) and favorite hour of the day (10 pm); this is an audience who knows his obsessions and was ready to enjoy how he expressed them.

My favorite moments were these: Archer talked about his family: "... and my mom, Donna -- who is over there --" and with a big smile pointed at me standing and filming at the door. And when a classmate asked whether his sister was born when he went to the Bahamas, Archer at first struggled with a literal answer to the question, stammering "no ... oh ... oh ..." I was sure he was thinking about whether his sister was born while on the trip. But when he got his thought out, it turned out he had found his way into the intent: "... she was two when we went to the Bahamas. Or actually -- three."

I can't embed video because it was 21 minutes long; family have been sent the murky, shaky evidence (the room was darkened for the occasion, and the only reason you can see Archer at all is the light from the computer screen at which he is standing). Maybe when he performs it for us at home, I'll share it. For now, I'm just proud that Archer achieved his goal, did it with verve and personality as well as discipline, and showed us again how he diverges from the norm while aspiring to its prosaic, unremarkable skills -- skills that he makes us appreciate as hard-won accomplishments.

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