Learning About Life Through Another Lens, And How Blessed We All Really Are…

Some weeks ago I started an ASL (American Sign Language) course online – I regularly volunteer with children with disabilities and had asked a mom (whose four year-old boy both has autism and is deaf) for some ASL resources. Her son additionally suffers from a little bit of separation anxiety, which isn’t horribly uncommon with autism – when he comes to our volunteer play sessions, there are times that he begins to cry and it’s terribly tricky to discern what will make him feel more comfortable. While I was already interested in learning ASL (up to 50% of autistic individuals are non-verbal), this little guy was enough to get me on the road to finding a class…as soon as possible.

The awesome news is that I also volunteer with Special Olympics-driven skating sessions once a week that includes a number of children who are either hard of hearing or completely deaf. There’s nothing quite like being able to communicate with them – being able to sign even a single word is exciting! (I definitely have a way to go!)

A couple of days ago, though, I came down with a cold of some kind – as a result of contagiously coughing, I lost my voice – and I mean completely. Talk about being in someone else’s shoes…

Horribly uncomfortable a “bug” is for any of us, it’s nothing compared to what some children and adults have to deal with on a regular, and life-long basis. In a strange way, I feel thankful that I can’t speak because it’s an exercise in understanding what it *might* be like – while I consider myself to be one of the most empathetic people I know, it is impossible to fully understand anyone’s experience without being in their skin.

I have lost my voice on one other occasion – remarkably, I was 16 spending a month in France, with very little French under my belt. I guess life likes to test my ability to communicate (which – as is clear – is NOT always done with speech.)

In any case, it’s as the saying goes – you don’t always realize what you have until you lose it. I’d never anticipate not having the ability to speak was an easy road…but it is a welcome experience. (Now I’m not exactly encouraging anyone to go out to a concert and scream at the top of his or her lungs to deliberately subdue the vocal chords…I’m just saying, there is good to everything. Yes, including getting sick and losing a primary means of communication.)

Now my husband has a little bit of a challenge playing the guessing game as far as “what is my wife trying to say now?” He’s doing a remarkable job of deciphering, decoding, and understanding what I am trying to say, and that’s not easy to do! So I’m very fortunate to have the support and patience.

Going to the store is also an enlightening experience – I can’t say “thank you,” or “excuse me” as I normally would, nor can I respond vocally to others. That leaves me feeling a little bit awkward as reciprocal speech is one of the key forms of communication many of us learned from infancy. When I indicate with gesture and my lips that I have lost my voice, people either immediately begin to whisper or act altogether more gently – it’s incredibly interesting! (I actually can’t even whisper, as that puts more stress on the vocal chords than speaking does!)

The other side of it is that I’m derailed from my activities – in part I simply don’t feel up to them physically. The pain and discomfort though. . .I think about all the children with autism suffering from sensory sensitivities without the ability to say “those lights are hurting my eyes,” “this fabric makes my skin burn,” “my chest hurts….” What is life like for them? Many “behavioral issues” are a result of such a scenario – they don’t have a means to say what they are feeling.

For the children who are deaf or hard of hearing, thankfully they do have words at their disposal (albeit non-speech, hand / facial /body gestures.) I learned “sick,” “feel,” “bathroom,” and “okay?” as quickly as I could. Fortunately I’m learning many other words too…but knowing that it will take time, it’s important I know some basics.

Even if I was feeling better, my usual day-to-day would still be a substantial challenge – I can’t make a singe phone call, for one. I can’t ask for help locating a medicine at the store. If I were in an office, I’d have to type everything out (doable, but less efficient.) I certainly can’t breakdown a Ninjutsu technique the way I could by asking questions in class, and I definitely can’t teach or volunteer. I have to rely on gestures to talk to others I might run into in my own apartment building because I am utterly devoid of my usual method of communication…

So it’s been a remarkable few days…

While I’m sure it’s not fun to be around me while I’m loudly coughing, slower-moving, and unable to answer even the easiest question, I feel truly thankful for the experience. In fact, I’m taking the opportunity to review videos from the ASL course modules that I’ve already completed – I will hopefully be seeing the Special Olympics kids on Wednesday to skate and I know a few happy ones who use ASL exclusively. 🙂 

Autism And Other Pervasive Disorders – Idioms And Literal Language

I’ve been taking a graduate course in autism spectrum disorder (ASD) over the last few months and I’ve loved it so much more than I can say. Having been out of the school circuit for 17 years, it’s definitely been eye-opening across the board! But nothing beats the feeling of learning more about ASD and other pervasive developmental diseases – I’ve truly found my passion, and am ever eager to apply what I learn to my volunteer work with children, teens, and adults of varying disabilities.

In a recent discussion we talked about idioms – a type of “language” that we all use without really thinking about it. Neither, therefore, do many of us consider the implications on individuals with autism or other developmental disabilities and delays. As I prepared for the discussion, I realized that I couldn’t think of any I had used “off the top!” Sure enough, as I snooped about online, I discovered I use quite a few. For example:

All ears                                                It takes two to tango

Blessing in disguise                          Method to the madness

Chomp at the bit                                Not playing with a full deck

Cry over spilt milk                             Off his rocker

Curiosity killed the cat                      Once in a blue moon

Devil’s advocate                                 Over the moon

Silver lining                                         Piece of cake

Hit the hay                                          Speak of the devil

Hit the nail on the head                    Take it with a grain of salt

My classmates also came up with a hefty array of phrases, many of which I hear or say myself (“I lost my marbles!” comes to mind. 🙂 )  In combination with meticulous observation of my own idiom usage (for the purposes of this assignment) I found that I say them with relative frequency in every day speech. . .as does just about everyone around me. The funny thing is that I actually had to look up examples – using idioms is so much a part of our language that I wasn’t even aware. This sentiment was, as it turns out, shared by my classmates…

Having learned throughout my course that individuals with ASD often take language literally – truly at its face value – I am now far more attentive to my verbal language when communicating with them. Paired with deficits in social skillsets (such as joint attention, inability to read body language, verbal tone, cues and so forth), the literal translation of idioms could pose a substantial challenge during interaction. Our course has touched on the multitude of challenges that children with ASD face in the realm of communication (which includes a lot more than just “verbal language.”) The point has also been made that it isn’t always obvious to an outsider that someone with ASD won’t understand conversation, as some have a large (and impressive!) vocabularies.

I recall once saying (prior to my class, in a volunteer capacity) “you could be a pro!” to a child with ASD kicking a soccer ball. He asked what I meant and I realized that I didn’t say “professional soccer player,” which is what I needed to express in order for him to understand my meaning. While not an idiom per se, the language was not complete – an abbreviation I took for granted was not clear to him. This experience was eye-opening and I realized I needed to up my awareness when conversing with an individual with ASD. It is not at all a matter of intelligence – I find many to be incredibly bright…and they are! – more that I need to recognize the common trait of taking words exactly as spoken. I myself have a tendency to read into what I hear, sometimes taking comments as literal and serious.

Despite that English is my only fluent language, I always loved learning foreign languages in school. I remember purchasing books that offered slang and street French / Italian (even Latin!) so that I could perhaps utilize the language in the way native speakers do…or at least follow their conversation. Slang and idioms are a HUGE part of a culture’s social structure – they are thrown around with such frequency that not understanding them can pose a substantial language barrier as well as, at worst, flat-out social isolation. Think about learning a new language in school, then being immersed in that culture. The stream of communication of someone native to the language will be riddled with idioms – we all do it! We might then find ourselves saying, “what do you mean?” just like the child with ASD asked me.

This is a massive task for teachers because there are infinite ways in which idioms may present, and there are in the order of twenty-five thousand in English alone. (Wikipedia, as retrieved from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Idiom ) We read an article written by Temple Grandin earlier in the course and she mentioned how she has to mentally retrieve visuals and concrete memories based on previous experiences to know how to respond appropriately in social situations – what a daunting task! When we study a specific technique in Ninjutsu (a current Martial Art of mine) we sometimes discuss that the founders of the Art did not always teach a follow-up submission or takedown with it – the reasoning was that there are so many permutations, the task would not only be overwhelming, but students would be trying to remember far too many combinations (diverting attention from the more important fundamentals.) Way to go, Temple, for mastering that ability!

In the case of language, however, not learning idiomatic expressions will absolutely leave a child at a disadvantage – out of the realm in which peers and others knowledgeable about their disabilities (and therefore able to accommodate), an individual with ASD may be left bewildered by the normal conversational style of society. Again, as above, potentially leading to isolation and less opportunity for interactions (which also means less practice!)

Teaching generalization is vital for the individuals, and I do think key idioms must be addressed. That all said, I think that a learning program must – as all instruction – be highly specific, and tailored to the individual with ASD. If he or she is at a level at which more can be mentally digested, perhaps more idioms can be taught – but I sincerely believe that core fundamentals of are crucial, and must – as an order of operations – be learned before attempting to master more descriptive, idiomatic expressions. (I did see, per the below, a plethora of visual representations of idioms, which would be a perfect way to introduce them to children with ASD!)

A Wise Man. . .

There are a thousand reasons why this idea should be prized. . .

Words have power and sometimes it is better to remain silent, lest ignorance, impatience, anger, or inability to understand cause more harm than good. 

Sounds easy. . .but. . .it isn’t.  It’s a life-long pursuit to manage the gift of language we’ve been given.  Sometimes nothing feels better than sharing, commenting, responding, speaking. . . But a lot of times silence is a wiser, if not kinder, response.

While I am a long way from mastering the skill, it’s a good reminder that there’s a time and a place to use the gift of speech. Before engaging, thinking is often a great idea.

Dog (And Life) Humor – The Power Of Affirmations

Whether or not it’s the “right thing” to not want affirmations from others, I’d be lying if I said it didn’t matter to me – I’ve always valued language, and kind verbal expression, whether from friends, family, coaches, training partners, even a purr from the boys!

Words, to me, are a huge deal, and I will always take them at face value, even when also internalizing the context, the non verbal cues, and the motivations behind them.

Like this pup, a sweet word can really light up my day. This lil guy is precious all around so I’d be showering him with “you’re so adorable”s all the time. . .in which case we’d definitely have the “after” effect regularly. ❤

As for my Keku and Musashi…food (or specifically shrimp) seem to have more of an effect than my “gooooood boyyyy!”s! Can’t win ’em all!

The Secrets Of Ninjutsu

Ninjutsu is probably one of my favorite Arts – its unique and unorthodox techniques, its higher-level, somewhat ethereal concepts, and the intriguing furtiveness captivated me from the get go.  It is, truly, an Art…and as a dancer and ice skater at heart, artistry is my language.

I’ve (rather sadly) seen traditional Arts dismissed as irrelevant – many modern-day practitioners want techniques that they can apply to modern-day scenarios.  Makes sense.  But therein lies the deception. Being rooted in a deep and complicated history also means that there are thousands of gems lying within the teachings.  Ones that have not only stood the test of time – when it was truly life and death – but ones that can also be very readily adapted and applied to “today.”

BudoRyoNinjutsu

One of the most interesting facets of Ninjutsu is the whole air of “secrecy.”  It sounds like an exaggeration but trust me, it isn’t.  Even within the walls of an official school, we find lots of “Henka,”or variations on specific techniques – the thing is, they are not always relayed in a straight-forward fashion, and sometimes are only hinted at.  For some Artists, that idea doesn’t go over (I can feel the eye rolls.)

While reading a Curriculum, for example, you might see images that don’t always jive with what the written directions are saying.  It ISN’T a lost-in-translation mistake either.  It’s completely deliberate.

The idea here is not that the “powers that be” of Traditional Ninpo are aiming to be unreasonably difficult, nor necessarily that they want to add some mysterious air that the Art can’t back up.  It’s more about the principle that learning is very much about DOing. Your Sensei is “passing down” the traditions, so to speak, and it drives home the idea that just reading a book, going online, or cerebrally understanding concepts ISN’T enough.  Martial Arts transcends any one approach – it takes grasping the fundamentals intellectually, absolutely, but the Art cannot be realized without being fully hands-on.

Taking it a step further, there are countless layers to the Art – you may learn a technique at one level, only to discover – throughout your own progression – profound jewels embedded deeply with in them…ones you neither could see, nor were capable of comprehending, in earlier training.

Ninpo embraces that we are not always ready for all of the “secrets” but that to develop our true “artistry” will take time, hard work, both finessing and breaking down the techniques until we can create our own. I suppose in a way many Martial Arts take that tact but here, some of the information is simply not shared until one has proven oneself to be ready.

The multi-faceted Ninjutsu is 1,000% NOT for everyone. It is acrobatic, intense, a little bit cryptic, unabashedly sneaky, and incredibly down-and-dirty at times.  Remember, the Ninja needed to survive…not stand on the battlefield until they – or you – were terminated (a la Samurai.)  

Ninjutsu focuses more on learning to keep distance, disabling, taking up an opponent’s space (including mental and spiritual) and getting away with one’s life.  To me, that’s the ultimate – I never began Martial Arts to “beat someone up.”  It’s an ART first and foremost for me, personally.  But, should I be faced with a true threat, I want the ability (or at least the tools) to disable, disengage, and get to safety.  It isn’t about “the fight,” but minimizing injury and getting away.  No ego.  No heroics.

Ninjutsu specifically will expose the student to everything from joint locks, small joint manipulations, grappling, takedowns, throws, sweeps, striking and weapons, to name a few.  I love that we have the opportunity to have such exposure, as many Arts are much more limited in scope. That said, the journey for each practitioner is unique, and built upon vastly different goals – in my own heart, I believe all Martial Arts are worthy and beneficial, markedly different they may be.

Martial Arts isn’t for the faint of heart – Ninjutsu isn’t “gentle” by any stretch, but it does teach us skills by which we can learn to keep ourselves – and our opponents – safe.  At the end of the day, however, we are taught that if we must overcome that individual, we must be prepared to do so.  Fortunately in modern times we don’t have to take it quite that far (certainly not in practice!)

Sometimes techniques hurt, sometimes they baffle, and other times they’re a little difficult to track down…. But each one of them – both the clandestine and the clear – are there should we be required to use them.  

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Humor – Mondays

I know it.  Mondays can be rough.  But it’s all about perspective. . .

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(*excuse the language – hard to contest the hilarity of the above, however, and so I deemed it worth the share regardless. 😉 )

Kindness

Cliche but…truth. And a nice reminder.

Someone very close to me actually can’t see that well anymore – and it isn’t a result of age.  To be robbed of sight before 40 – pronounced legally blind as the result of an undefined virus – feels so criminal. He’s vastly more talented than he’ll ever know as an artist, and yet he will never again be able to create as he once did. 

In his world, colors have faded, leaving a bleak landscape flanked only by peripherals of deadened black. Values constantly bleed into one another, making objects difficult to define.  Bright lights, even a subtle glare, render an ever greater “blindness” than the already tunneled, spot-like field of view that remains.

So while I’ve seen this quotation hundreds of times, over many years, it has an even more valuable quality now. . . I saw it.  And I paused with a heavy breath.

Womanista.com

Womanista.com

When has to ask for help because he cannot see whether his food is safely prepared, or because he cannot make out a number that he needs on the computer screen…I feel my heart bleeding.  He takes it in good stride, thankful for the blessings he does have…and in that, are we all reminded yet again…

He once crossed paths with an angry man in the street – one well under the influence.  Having thought he was being stared down – not realizing the man looking at him in fact could not see – this man became engaged, aggressive, and approached. But – perhaps from some subconscious knowing – he backed away before becoming violent. . .leaving a nearly-blind man, resigned to being beaten, thankfully (unexpectedly) untouched.

The thing is…you wouldn’t know he cannot see.  He doesn’t walk around with a cane, able to see SOMEthing, and reluctant to give up what freedom he has left.  

You wouldn’t know that the center vision is pristine, but so much else is lost that he is, truly, disabled, and fully unable to see the breadth of what is going on around him.  

When kindness is spoken among all, we include those who may in fact be suffering, though we cannot – ourselves – necessarily perceive it.  

The world is a sometimes a violent, cruel, and inhospitable place – we have the ability to offer kindness regardless of circumstance.  To do so – difficult it may feel at times – is a gift we are all capable of giving, and one that might go wildly farther than we dream. 

It is easy to forget the blessings we do have, and to take life, and health, for granted.  So I – for one – appreciate seeing familiar words from a newer perspective.  

I appreciate being reminded without the severity that some reminders may come with.  

I appreciate the example of perseverance that those in adversity demonstrate.  

And I appreciate the kindness that people offer. . .because you might cross his path one day too. . .and your kindness will not fall on deaf ears, nor blinded eyes – it will be received with gratitude, and far more of it than you’ll know.

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