Saturday, October 6, 2012

At The Round Table... Proximity is Precious

The only piece of furniture I really wanted for my classroom was a round table. The "kidney shaped" tables, the classic rectangle can communicate messages of separateness,  an imbalance of power with an adult on one side and the children on the other. A round table however inspires a very different kind of conversation.  Partial to them perhaps because I grew up in a family where we ate dinner every night  all together at a round table.  In a time when families often no longer eat together, the value of how my parents chose to raise us around that table is not lost on me. It didn't matter that my mother's feelings about cooking were ambivalent at best, or that my brother had to have cheerios and quesadillas every night instead of what the rest of the family ate... What mattered was that every single night, we all sat together. Looked at each other. Talked, argued, laughed. Yes, my youngest sister was given permission to stand on her chair to get a word in edgewise... a feat she miraculously only tried once. But that round table is where we learned to communicate, to take turns, to listen, to share, to be together in a small space where there was enough room for everyone in our family, and room for everyone we invited to share a meal with us.

The round table is the ultimate way to tell my students "We really are all in this together." Everyone is equal, everyone has a place, and one cannot avoid another when seated directly next to and across from each other. This is how we create community. The clinical aspects of this furniture choice are as follows... Myself and my assistants model conversation with the children, with each other. If a child  looks up, there will be another person in front of them to meet his gaze. If a child has difficulty sharing space, it's an opportunity to stretch ones comfort level with other peers so close at hand. Labeling food items, noticing if a child likes or doesn't like a food item, commenting, questioning and encouraging vocalizations are all ways we are supporting speech and language development. And my personal favorite... the opportunity to develop essential self -help skills such as opening and closing containers, asking for "help", for "more", and being responded to quickly and consistently is communicating a sense of personal agency, autonomy and ultimately? Pleasure, joy, a precious shared proximity to each other.

One may wonder, what does this sound like, look like? A group of Autistic Pre-K and Kinder students eating together? To be a fly on our wall you will hear  humming, squeals of laughter, silence if everyone is particularly hungry, a shout, an adult prompting "more" and "please" (yes it's never too early or too late to learn manners), and applauding when the child approximates or signs the word. Sometimes someone sings practicing circle time songs, or plays peek-a-boo after eating has finished. One may hear a small boy saying "Ms. Amy, Call me me Princess Kate!" "Princess Kate, you need to finish your lunch your mom made for you." "No, Ms Amy, Princess Kate's mommy did not make the lunch, Prince William made it for her."

Proximity is precious. Circles of Communication. There is a place for everyone at our table. If one day someone needs to stand on a chair to be heard? I'll think of my little sister, and instead of saying "Get down that's not safe!" I will say, " What would you like to tell us _______?"

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