Conversations with a non verbal 17-year-old.

“It is like finding treasure”

William Little’s year 12 school report is everything a parent or student could wish for. Look down the pages and there is a list of grades A, A+ and a B. The As are not just for William’s amazing academic achievement, but also for the fantastic effort he has put into his work and his great behaviour.

William is, on paper, the model student who elicits observations of a “bright, excitable and charming young man who would be an asset to the right learning environment or workplace”.

This is in stark contrast to just six-years-ago when William’s teachers said that he would never know his ABCs.

His parents removed him from that school and he has, as his school report says, “matured into a highly engaging and interesting and interested man”.  William is non-verbal with ASD and Dyspraxia. Six years ago, he was in the most severe class at a special school where his teachers wanted him to focus on sensory activities, not academia. William’s achievements are even more remarkable as, for the past six years, he has been home schooled. 

“William’s parents have leveraged home, community and extensive technology resources to generate a world-class home mathematics education program for their son,” his school report from the Home Education Unit of the Queensland Department of Education, Training and Employment reads. 

In July 2007, Jacqui, William’s mother, started home educating with the help and guidance from an occupational therapist, speech pathologist and an education consultant. William is now a delightful, 184cm (just over six foot), 17 year old. What does he think about his education and importantly about his future? The school report makes many assumptions about William. It suggests that perhaps he should become an apprentice carpenter or animated designer. But William has other ideas.

Autism World asked Jacqui to interview William about his life, his education and his aspirations.  “It may take him a long time to complete his thoughts. We can only try,” Jacqui said.  William types with one finger using a special needs keyboard by Clevy.

The results of those mother and son conversations have been moving and have brought Jacqui to tears many times. They have also given William a voice about his schooling and his future. 

“It is like finding treasure,” said Jacqui. “We always wished that there were hopes, plans and compassion inside him. Now we know there are.”

William went to various schools from the age of two for eight years and made very slow progress. In his last year at the special school when he was just 10 he became very unhappy and depressed. He used to hide when he heard the school bus approaching his home. His teacher said that he tried to head-butt her in class and that they had to chase him around the playground to get him in at break times. 

William says he simply did not like his school. “It made me unhappy because they under-estimated me and one of the teachers made me feel unhappy. She didn't care my feelings and gave me sad times (sic).”  He told us that he understood “very little” of what the teachers were saying to him. Jacqui says that time was confusing for her as well. “I had a terrible feeling inside; why is he here, what are they teaching, is he learning, where do I go from here?” An education consultant visited William at home and at school and concluded that he was coming to no harm but that he deserved more. 

With help from the consultant, William’s parents decided to remove him from the school system altogether. “I felt that I must get him out and home education was the next step,” Jacqui said. William has thrived in the home schooling environment. “Yes, I like it. Mum and dad know how much I know and the children were very noisy at school,” he told us.

Taking William out of school and home educating also gave Jacqui a brighter outlook on her life too. “I knew I had a huge job on my hands but I thought ‘I can do this.’ In the years to come it will be my husband and I who will be living with William. When he is 18 there will be no teachers or paediatric professionals.” 

William’s dad, Greig, is a pilot so the family enjoys travel and William loves planes. His favourite book is London Heathrow, The World’s Busiest International Airport by Freddy Bullock. William found skiing exciting, but one of his favourite memories is of a family holiday at Tangalooma on Morton Island, just off the Queensland coast. “(We) fed dolphins, went sailing, (rode on) quad bikes,” he beams as he writes.

William is already looking ahead to what he would like to learn next year. “Computer skills and maths. I would like to continue with learning how to speak. I would like to do exercise,” he typed. “I like best knowing about what is going on in the world and enjoying being taught. I like learning at home because it is calm and enjoyable.”

As with any school, it’s not all fun and games. Jacqui keeps a routine and sometimes William finds the work a bit tough.
“I dislike the pressure sometimes when I feel unwell,” he said. William also feels frustrated when he needs to tell his mother that he understands what she is teaching and that he feels the need to move on. “I get angry and we have to stop until I calm down.”

When William gets bored and wants to move to the next level he nudges Jacqui on the chin with his chin. William explained this action. “I am angry with her, I don’t hurt her. I give her a kiss to say sorry,” he said.

Jacqui explains: “William always wants to make friends with me after he has had a meltdown.” Jacqui then uses communication boards and the yes/no application on the iPad to find out what was wrong. The family uses that same app along with portable cards to have conversations however they don’t happen at the dinner table. “William dislikes the sight of the food we eat.  When we are eating out he will tolerate it,” said Jacqui adding that her son is partial to Vegemite on toast.  “We can go to friends or family and he will sit at the table for over two hours and enjoys socialising.”

Like many his age, William enjoys being active. He rollerblades, plays on the trampoline and goes Micro scooting. Jacqui says her son doesn’t have much social interactions with others his age but she’s sure he would like to.
“He doesn’t know how yet. Neither do teenagers he comes in contact with. William does have two friends in the UK that he grew up with and he really enjoys the interaction. You can see the joy on his face,” she said.
William is optimistic about his future. Far from the advice on his report, he has decided to pursue a career in a field in which he already has hands-on experience.

“I feel (a) job in autism would help others like me. I want to continue to learn how to make best for me,” William typed. “I like to study autism but I don’t know what to study. I know about my autism but everyone is different,” he said.

William knows that he has his parents’ support and is confident that they will help him find out how he can work in the field of autism.

As William’s confidence grew we asked about how he feels about others on the spectrum; those who are high functioning or with different skills to him. His answer is perhaps a lesson for us all. “I think make no difference very good you hope for the best. Hope is all we can ask for,” he said.

Jacqui said: “I just couldn't believe what he was saying... just amazing!” “Greig was just so pleased to read his comments, too. William wants to study autism. Wow! I am on a high,” she said. “I had goose bumps when I first read Carly Fleischmann’s memoir, Carly's Voice.  Now I have even bigger goose bumps.”

Since we completed our conversations for Autism World, Jacqui says that William also seems happier. “He has told us what he wants for his future and he is excited about this,” she said. “Having built this new communication method with William, I feel quite excited about where he wants to go next. This has been a family activity bringing us closer to our beautiful son.” 

Jacqui has this advice for those following on a similar path. “My advice is to start working with and guiding you child at an early age. Cover what is appropriate and inappropriate behaviour in public places and how you want them to behave in your family home,” she said. “This has taken our family many years to achieve but we are now reaping the benefits!”

L I T T L E   V O I C E

by Iain Croft

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