Sunday, August 9, 2009

A Ship's Captain

I remember reading a book, a long time ago, called The Ship Who Sang by Anne McCaffrey and ideas from this book took hold of my imagination and became a metaphor that I have revisited. In the book, Helva is a young captain of a spaceship. She is born with severe physical handicaps but is exceptionally intelligent so she is put on some kind of life support system and then encapsulated in a complex spaceship. She becomes the brains of this ship and the ship becomes her body.

The metaphor of being captain of a ship sailing across the wide expanse of life is not original, of course, but imagining that one is actually, physically hooked up to a complex machine like a spaceship takes the metaphor a little further. The book explores, in the story of Helva, how it is to be both the same as others and very, very different.

Over the years, I have imagined my own brain as Helva, in charge of a complex machine, me, and baffled by both mechanical problems and the complexity of sailing in ever changing galaxies. I have learned to be patient with myself, in part, by reflecting on this metaphor. When I am overwhelmed by large or small challenges, I am not hesitant to seek information from the accumulated knowledge and wisdom of others.

When I think about how we all begin, captains of ships that we don't know anything about, I think it is a strange process to grow-up. In the beginning, as newborn infants, we learn to use our eyes, ears, hands and mouths by trial and error. Luckily we can't sail far at the beginning. It is fortunate that we learn to talk and walk at about the same time. Even before we can talk, we have mastered the art of watching others and imitating their behaviors and even their attitudes toward the world around us. Once we are able to imitate and communicate, we develop navigation skills far beyond what we could learn by trial and error. As hard as it is to captain a powerful human ship, it is possible and we stand a good chance of having a grand adventure because we can learn from the accumulated knowledge and wisdom of so many who sail beside us and who have sailed before us. It is hard to imagine how terrifying it would be to sail through life without others guiding, instructing, and reassuring us all the way along.

The ship metaphor helps me understand and prioritize therapy goals for children with autism. I imagine the child with autism as captain of his or her own ship, trying to learn to navigate through life. I know that this child captains a ship that navigates differently from mine and differently from his parents' ship. In fact, this child's ship may be a thousand times more difficult to navigate and we who are in charge of guiding, instructing and reassuring must try as best we can to understand how this child's ship works.

Goal 1: Sharing what I know and listening to what parents know is the first objective of therapy. If all children who had autism were alike, it would be a little easier, but this is not the case. If I don't understand, and even worse, if the parent does not understand how the child's vessel works, how are we to guide, instruct, and reassure?

Goal 2: The second priority is to create an effective communication system between the parent and the child. The system does not have to be the same as the communication system that flows between other parents and children but it needs to be effective so that when the child is confused or lost there is someone there who will see this and will guide, instruct and reassure as needed.

I believe, as I must in my profession, that these two goals are possible. Sometimes it seems otherwise but it is always possible.

In this video clip, you will see a beautiful little Ship Who Sings. Be sure to watch it as you will be moved and inspired, I promise.


Dr. Susan Larson Kidd said...

Tahirih, that was an awesome video, and a wonderful analogy!

CC said...

Wonderful analogy. My husband loves this author. I'll see if I can get him to read the book! ;)