Friday, March 15, 2013

Response: Barb Rentenbach lecture

I’m not sure what I expected from the lecture presented by Barb Rentenbach and Dr. Lois Prislovsky. I think I expected to hear about the difficulties associated with living with Autism, and how we as educators can learn to assist autistic individuals in our classrooms. And yes, the lecture did address these issues, but in quite a roundabout and unexpected way.

Her comments about people being “flecks of God” bring a unique perspective to the question of living with autism.  I am not unfamiliar with children with autism, so I couldn't say that the presentation changed my view of them in any real way. What I will say is that the lecture was a great reminder to teachers about the individuality of every student, including those with disabilities. Despite whatever barriers a student has to learning, communication, or social interaction, the reality is that there is a beautiful, thoughtful individual behind it all who desires relationship and human kindness.

I wanted to ask her about her education – how she was schooled, what methods were used for learning, and how she felt about the whole process of childhood “education.” Not knowing exactly how old she is, I wasn’t able to place her education during an “era” – what the emergent educational trends were, how she might have been placed, what was known about autism at that time. I think that would be quite a conversation.

After the lecture, another student brought up some of the controversies surrounding facilitated communication. I certainly think there could be some validity to those arguments; however, I saw Lois’ involvement with her communication more as the product of interaction over time. When you spend that much time with someone (disabilities or not), you begin to anticipate another’s thoughts and sometimes have your own “shorthand” for communicating. It seemed to me in this case that Lois serves as assistant to Barb’s numerous and witty thoughts.

The following Monday after the lecture, I observed in a special education classroom at a local elementary school. Obviously, I could not know for certain what the students’ disabilities were, but several were non-verbal and, I suspect, fall somewhere on the autism spectrum. Barb’s talk certainly influenced my time with them. Instead of sitting back as a passive observer, I was able to help out with the class. My favorite time was with 1st grade student who was very interested in me, the new person in the room. She wanted to be near me and hold my hands, so we spent the morning with her holding my hands, touching my face, and clapping my hands for me. There is nothing I would rather have been doing that holding that sweet girl’s hands. That’s the way SHE communicates right now, and that was good enough for me.

At the risk of being unprofessional, I have to say that there is some irony in listening to a lecture given by a non-verbal person. The way that Barb communicates with her tablet device is pretty amazing, albeit slow.  She has tremendous wit and (can I say it?) snarkiness. But I wouldn't say that she is cynical – quite the opposite. I think she has a real optimism about life and living just as she is.

For further information about Barb Rentenbach, you can visit the website for Mule and Muse Productions.

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