Ritual creates unexpected learning for child with autism

Ritual creates unexpected learning for child with autism

It was a question my father heard hundreds of times: “What makes a family a family?” He preached on it, wrote about it, and from my perspective lived it out in our own family life.

He had a formula, of course, a tidy set of three considerations that were easy to remember, thanks to his signature use of alliteration. To create a strong sense of family, he contended, parents should learn and practice “The Three R’s” of rearing children:

Rules, Rituals, and Regulations.

Rules and regulations provide limits. They set boundaries that protect as well as confine. Rules define the standards while regulations enforce the standards with consequences. Both are “tremendously important,” I can hear him saying.

Rituals, however, are the most powerful tools a family possesses, he emphasized. Children learn best by hands-on-examples.

I’ll never forget my own family’s finest and most surprising evidence of Dad’s philosophy. Madison, my daughter with autism, was 8 years old. As a baby she cried a lot, slept little, and had trouble engaging with anyone, even our family. Her verbal ability at age 8 was minimal. Her speech was scripted and learned after years of specialized therapy that required repeated prompting to elicit her response.

Yet, she was happy. She loved to sing Mary Kate and Ashley songs and memorized every word of her Barney videos. Her rhythm was precise, whether jumping in time to the music or bending sideways at the waist and swinging her head of long shiny hair back and forth, adding drama to her dance.

Still, she shied away from family activities with her older and younger siblings, even though they encouraged her to join. Sometimes she would. Most often, she would not. She preferred to play alone.

At meal time, though, she came to the table to sit with us. Our family ritual was (and is) holding hands around the table and praying the children’s blessing:

“God is great, God is good, let us thank him for our food;

by his hands we are fed, give us Lord our daily bread. Amen.”

Madison was well behaved in the circle, but never seemed aware of what was happening or participated. She would consent to hold hands during the prayer, but when first syllable of “amen” was uttered, she would bolt upright and leave us to return to her singing and dance.

Until one Friday night.

It was our family pizza night. We were seated and had joined hands. With my head bowed and eyes closed, I was about to lead our prayer when Madison shocked us all.

“God is great,” she began in her best Barney voice. And she didn’t stop until she reached the “amen.” She said the entire prayer, more words than I’d ever heard her say, solo!

Dad was right. Rituals are a powerful means of creating family. They teach by spaced repetition, an important component in the learning process. In time, they can become lesson-enriched traditions, the very fiber that weaves together the fabric of family.

Rebecca Faye Smith Galli is the daughter of the late Dr. R.F. Smith Jr., a longtime columnist for The Herald-Dispatch. rfsgalli@gmail.com Twitter @chairwriterwww.beckygalli.com.

First published 4/17/16 Herald-Dispatch http://www.herald-dispatch.com/opinion/

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